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 Comment

  1. The best way to get our students involved in democracy is to have them look at their local government. As a future educator who hopes to teach in Hamilton County, this article really piqued my interest. I, myself, do not know too much about our local government so having a better understanding of both the mayor-council system and commission system is imperative to my future classroom. Instilling these facts in our students even at the middle grades level will (hopefully) inspire students to be involved with their local government as well as vote (in city, state, & country wide matters)!

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