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. I don’t know much about our local government or the government in general. I think that something that gets lost in translation is the fact that voting not only happens during the presidential race, but locally as well. I only remember learning a little bit about our local government. We focused more on federal and not much on state or local.

  2. Its rarely acknowledged that the government is local and not only in D.C. Our government also isn’t taught enough. As boring as it is, it is still important to know and to be engaged so everyone has a say in what is going on in the states.

  3. I do a lot of times forget the that government is not only the White House. That it is the county, city, and state too. This helped me understand this a little more. 

  4. I am 21 years old and know minimal about the local government which surrounds me. I honestly struggle to make informed decisions when it comes time to vote during election season. I would love to spend some time teaching about how the local government works to my students. It is something that is relevant to each and every one of them! I am curious to see it done well, and wonder how you would make it engaging. It seems like such a boring topic at that age, and I feel like I would struggle to make learning about the local government seem exciting. While I know it is relevant, I doubt the students would be quite as engaged or excited. Maybe having students find an area of the local government which intrigues them and having them dive into it would be the best route.

  5. As a future teacher, I think that we need to teach students the importance of registering to vote and voting locally. Most seniors at my high school only cared about voting in the national election when they would have more of a say in which laws passed and who gets elected into government positions if they vote locally. The local government has the most impact on people’s lives, they are the people who run the city that you live in, they are the people who will listen to you personally to fix your problems and complaints.

  6. Before reading this article, I’d never really given much thought (if any) towards my local government. In school we weren’t taught about it, and my parent’s never said anything regarding it either. Now after reading it, the importance of local governments needs to be taught to our students early on in life. It impacts them more than they know! I’ll be sure to go vote now that I know the importance.

  7. I was very excited when I saw this article on the website. While I like to think I have a good understanding of how the government operates, one of my shortcomings has always been understanding local government. In school, we covered the United States Government significantly more than we did local government. This article helped me have a better understanding of how my local government operates and how the actions they take directly impact me and my life. I think talking about local government and ensuring students understand these concepts should be a big focus to ensure students have a better understanding of the function of these governments and how they can be more involved.

  8. Throughout my entire elementary, middle and high school and college career I’ve never knew the true function of local city and municipal government. When we learn about government it’s typically about the president/Vice President, senators, and representatives. However, as I am becoming more involved in my community, I know how important voting is at the local level. If we want to see change it starts at the local level. People who are elected to the senate and house of representatives certainly influence law-making decisions. The senate even has the power to override (veto) the president if they do not agree with certain bills. I believe it’s important for students and adults to knowledge about their local government.

  9. The local government is a topic very much glossed over in schools today. I remember once visiting the Capitol of Kentucky, but beyond that I was never shown much of the inner workings. My step-dad is in the city government so I know all about that, but local and state governments are so different than national. There is a lot of interpersonal relationships and connections that effect what laws run through our legislature. Being involved locally can help impact on a national scale.

  10. When I went to high school, there were no classes about any of our local government. We were taught basics about state and federal government, but little to none of the local government. Reading this article really put into perspective for me just how much the younger generation should know about those who govern their local communities. Local governments play a significant role in the lives of those who live there, while the citizens have absolutely no idea what is going on behind the scenes. Everyone should be as involved with their local government as they are with their state and federal government, as local governments hit much closer to home (no pun intended).

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