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. After reading the article “Who Runs the Show? Understanding Your Local Government”, it made me realize that I didn’t know as much about our local government than I had thought. The article provided good information on the compilation of local government and their tasks involved. I always knew that most cities have Mayors, however I wasn’t quite sure about City Council Members and what part they play in city politics. Dr. Childs provides good resources for teachers as well as for others who want to further their knowledge of this topic. If I learned all of the details regarding local politics during classes in High School, I sure don’t remember them. What’s the old saying, if you don’t use it you lose it.

  2. Taking government in high school I felt like his article gave a much better insight into local government than I have learned previously. I think looking at the different types of government and what each is responsible for should be taught more in schools. A lot of the teaching is focused on national government issues that local can be overlooked.

  3. Schools today do a disservice to there students. There is not enough emphasis on our local governing bodies. These local governments are what directly affect them though. Our local governments handle all the things that affect the students like school levies and taxes and many more. These resources help us as teachers to better keep our students informed on the local government. Keeping them informed is key to having our students have a voice as a citizen. this voice goes unheard thought if they are talking to the wrong people. As teachers, we need to give the students their voice and ensure that they are talking to the right people in order to push for the change that they want to see. I now better understand the importance of this and will make sure that my students understand their rights and the responsibilities that come with being an American citizen.

  4. I think this article is really interesting because we don’t seem to talk much or if at all about state governments in public schools today. Public schools are pretty hindered with talking about controversial topics such as government, given they don’t want to start any feuds with families if their views may be different. As a future educator I think it is important for children to know what is happening at state level; and we can educate them by giving them facts about the state government rather than opinions. Not many people realize the big impact that state governments actually play, so not many people care. The knowledge that people don’t possess about state government, is the reason why some may say that the not so good people are in office; that is people are voting without any knowledge of the state level persay. It is important as a future educator to take into consideration the state government and really teach students the importance of such!

  5. I learned so much about how the local government runs through this article. In high school I had to take a government class but we never talked about the local government like how this article talks about it. Its something that should be common knowledge and should be taught about.

  6. I learned more about local government in the few minutes it took me to read this article, than I ever did sitting in a classroom. At my high school students are required to take a government class. The only thing I remember focusing on was national government with slight mentions to the state government. Local government seems to be seldom mentioned. I think local government is important for students to have a knowledge of to become more active citizens where they live. By incorporating discussions and lessons that involve the roles of local government, students can gain the knowledge in a fun and memorable way.

  7. I enjoyed this article and believe that local elections and civics is largely under educated. I was encouraged by my parents when I became of voting age to vote in every single election local or state or federal. Looking at the emphasis the media and everyone places on presidential election I think takes away from the importance of local elections which have more influence over us sometimes.

  8. I found this article to be very interesting. When I think of government I typically just think of the national government. Schools usually just focus on the national level when teaching government to their students. Although I think this should change! Students should learn about their local government and the importance of it. I believe students will find it more interesting to learn about something that really hits home for them. I also enjoyed that there were lesson plans provided in this article, that way teachers can easily teach their students about their local government.

  9. I tend to forget how much local government plays a role in our everyday lives. When I think politics, I think about it at a state or national level. It seems that in schools, we spend a lot of time teaching government, but it is focused more on a national level, focusing on the United States and how our government is set up. If we spend the time teaching students about the government where we live and taking opportunities to get involved, they will see how it can matter!

  10. Who Runs the Show? Understanding Your Local Government
    In school, we’re mostly taught about government at the presidential level. We learn more about government at a national level, but rarely do we learn about what’s going on in our city or even county. It’s essential to start teaching students more about government at a local level, so children know what’s going on in their community. Incorporating information about local government is a way that we can talk about current events and keep the students up to date.

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