Who Runs the Show? Understanding Your Local Government

Bill Rinehart / WVXU

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Function of Local Government
When we think about civics and the democratic process, we may primarily think about government at the state or even national level. However, much of the day to day managing of resources and infrastructure that impact our daily lives are carried out by our local town, city and county governments. If it were not for a well-organized local government structure many of the modern conveniences we enjoy on a regular basis would not be available. What are the primary functions of the local government? What is the structure of our local city and county governments? This article will answer some of those fundamental questions and will also hone in on the Hamilton County and Cincinnati governmental structure and give a basic overview of leadership roles in the city. We will also provide some resources and lesson plans for teachers to use to help students understand local political structures and perhaps help them be more involved in the process. We will begin by discussing the function of local government and discussing the division of labor and responsibilities of those in various leadership positions.

County Governments
County governments oversee a large geographical region and encompasses cities and towns, but are smaller than states. Counties are created by state governments and generally operate under the provisions set forth by the state constitution. In this way, county governments are administrative units of the state. According to the 2012 Census there are just over three thousand counties in the United States. County systems usually take one of three basic forms: the commission system, the council-administrator system, and the council-elected executive system. The most common form of the three, is the commission system. Hamilton County in Ohio is run as a commission system. Under this structure, a small number of commissioners are elected to serve as the governing body within the county. The commissioners perform all legislative and executive functions, which might include holding authority for government taxing, budgeting, appropriating, and purchasing. They also hold title to county property. In Hamilton County there are three county commissioners. There are also eight other elected officials in Hamilton County that possess executive authority for their offices; these include the judiciary, and several independent commissions.

City and Municipal Governments
City and Municipal Governments manage the day to day operations and functions of cities and towns. For example, cities provide things like clean water, sewage and garbage disposal. They also maintain city facilities, such as parks, streetlights, and stadiums. Furthermore, they address zoning and building regulations, promote the city’s economic development, and provide law enforcement, public transportation, and fire protection. Cities and municipal governments are typically funded by property, sales and business taxes. Revenue also comes from fees from trash collection and the provision of water and sewer services. According to the 2012 Census there are just over 19,500 municipal governments and nearly 16,500 township governments in the United States. There are two primary types of municipal governing models: a mayor-council system or a council-manager system.

The city of Cincinnati operates under a mayor-council system. Under the mayor council-system both the mayor and members of the city council are elected by voters. The mayor is generally responsible for executive functions while the city council takes care of the legislative responsibilities. In Cincinnati city council members and mayors serve for four year terms. Furthermore, the City Manager works on behalf of the mayor and city council and is responsible for the day to day operations of the city.

In order for citizens to become more involved in the democratic process they must be educated on how the system works. Below are some resources and lesson plans that can help shed more light on the functions of local government that might perhaps help students and average citizens become more involved.    

Resources and Lesson Plans

iCivics- State and Local Government- Middle/High School

Local Government- Middle School Lessons

Local Government- High School Lessons

Civic Action- High School Lesson Plan

Local Election Scrapbook Lesson Plan- High School

Role of City Government

The Responsibilities of Local Government

Local Government Lesson Plan


Hamilton, County Ohio

Hamilton County Board of Commissions

Cincinnati Politics

List of mayors of Cincinnati

Cincinnati City Council


City of Cincinnati Official Page

Cincinnati City Manager’s Office

County and City Government

Classroom Resource on How Local Governments Function


  1. When we were in school, talks about our local government was very little to not talked about at all. I feel that we tend to focus on the “seemingly” more powerful parts of government, like our federal level. I am apart of Hamilton county; and I had been ignorant to who really runs our local government. I feel there needs to be more teachings in schools about their local government; that way people aren’t oblivious to these things, and really know what’s going on with the local government that they may reside in.

  2. I think educating students from a young age about the importance and the role of local government is very beneficial in the long run. Oftentimes, social studies curriculums only focus on national government. Sharing how the local government affects the national government, and vice-versa, allows for a better understanding of hour both our communities and our country function conjointly, as well as stresses the importance of voting in local elections.

  3. After reading this article, I realized I never really knew anything about the local government. I think this is an important topic to be taught about in schools. If I didn’t know much about it, I’m sure other people don’t know much about it. I did not know that the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County had such a major role with part of the government. We spend so much of our time focusing on the government as a whole and all the issues that society has to point out that the other parts of government are never heard of. I think the more we talk about and research these parts of the government, the more people will know and be aware of them.

  4. After reading the article “who runs the show?” I learned so much more about our local government and how it is ran. I learned about the structure of our local city and county governments and so much more. I also really enjoyed how there are resources for teachers to help students understand local political structures. It is a great way to help students get more involved and help them get more interested.

  5. I think this is a great topic to learn about. I recently made a comment to my dad about something involving our local government and his response to was “Why?” and I wasn’t able to give him a reasonable response because the most I knew about it was what I had read on Facebook. So many times, there are people who are ignorant to many topics, our government included, and make comments or try to discuss it like I did but aren’t able to back up there argument because they don’t know enough about the topic. Reading this brought to mind about how important this kind of topic is to brought up and discussed in schools because their are so many different aspects about get government that are useful to know and it is definitely something that I will be sure to bring to knowledge in my future classrooms.

  6. I don’t think that schools emphasize the importance of learning about local government. I am going to be honest, I had no idea who are town mayor was until he came into an appointment at the hospital and he told me he was the mayor. I was a little embarrassed, but my family had always talked about the government as it effects the US and not our towns. Now that I am older, I do my research on the city and state leaders. It is important to be aware.

  7. Our society mainly focuses on politics and government issues relating to the United States and not on local political structures. I think it is a great idea to have resources and lesson plans for teachers to provide to students and educate them on why local town, city, and county governments are just as important. This was not in my curriculum as a child, but I feel as if these concepts were provided and taught, people would become more involved with local political structures.

  8. I think that in schools, we do not emphasize local government enough. When I was in school, I remember learning a ton about government at the national level and a little at the state level but I barely remember learning about the government at the local level. I still do not know very much about the local government because it was never taught to me even though it is a very important subject. I think it is important that students learn about what their local government entails because the local government impacts our daily lives and can vary from county to county and city to city. This information is important for students to learn because it will help them to become more involved in their community’s government.

  9. I come from a family that always emphasized the importance of having a strong local government, but I know that many young students often hear more about government from a national level. Social studies curricula often focus on teaching from a more individualized perspective (what is closer to you) and then growing into a more broad view of the world. I think that teaching students about local government would be a great introduction to the government systems in our country and would provide students with the ability to make more real-world connections to the things that are happening in their community. I love Amber’s idea of having students write speeches about what they could do for their city. I also think that it would be fun to maybe have roles in the classroom similar to the roles that can be found in local government. This could be a week-long activity and students could engage in various simulated tasks replicating the duties of a particular official. (e.g. the classroom “mayor” proposes an idea for the classroom and the “council” votes and enforces the idea.)

  10. I don’t think we talk enough about local government in our schools in the area. We often learn more about the United States government on a national level, and we don’t learn about what’s going on in our city, or even our state. I didn’t realize that every city didn’t have a mayor, because I grew up in a town that did have one, but we never talked about it. I think integrating local government into our social studies curriculum is a fun way to talk about current events with students and talk about the area that they are growing up in. One idea that I had to talk about the different roles in city government, would be to have the students be a different member of the government and have them write a one or two minute speech about what they do for the city!

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