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It's Complicated: State and Local Government Relationships

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Crafting useful transparency recommendations for local government requires taking the time to understand the complexities of policy-making at this level. To engage thoughtfully in this, we have to better understand the relationships between municipalities and states.

Understanding how governments function and interact with each other is essential to understanding where and how transparency reforms will make a difference. When we look at local governments, we have to consider not only how that government is structured, but also how it operates in relation to the state structures that surround it.

We use cities as an example in this post for the sake of consistency and clarity, but these different relationships can apply across the spectrum of municipal governments and municipal government structures.

There are two basic types of interaction between cities and states:

  • A general law city has a structure largely shaped by a state's law or constitution. The municipality can adopt local ordinances setting rules for its residents, but only within the range allowed by state law. This format can also be shaped by Dillon's Rule, which essentially means that local governments only have the powers granted to them by the state. There is debate about the challenges and benefits of this system. Some local governments feel the rule restricts them when they try to deal with evolving issues such as a growing population with changing needs. A general law city would have to seek power from the state to deal with new problems if that authority hasn't already been explicitly granted, and that's where this system can be seen as a constraint.
  • A charter city or home rule city functions more autonomously from state laws and regulations. These cities have a charter establishing how government will be structured, what its duties are, and what local ordinances will be. The process for creating a charter or revising an existing charter varies from state to state. Any municipality with a charter is still subject to state laws, however. It might have more authority to deal with local issues, but any laws it sets are subject to the state law and constitution. Even in the places that have home rule, they might sometimes feel more like a general law city if the state is aggressive with the amount of legislation it passes impacting local policies and authority.

Independent cities might sound like another phrase outlining state and local relationships, but it technically refers to the relationship between cities and counties, not cities and states. An independent city is one that operates separately from a county. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau counts them as equal to county-level governance. On the flip side, there are consolidated city-counties, like San Francisco, where a city and county have the same powers and duties across the same land area.

It's important to keep in mind that there's no clear line between the ways municipalities and their state interact. There are many ways the philosophies of general law, Dillon's Rule, charters, and home rule overlap. A city can have home rule but be in a state that applies Dillon's Rule, for example. This is the case in Michigan: the state's constitution gives local governments the power to adopt charters and have home rule, but it also employs Dillon's Rule by setting some guidelines for how municipalities operate.

The only one real commonality between general law and home rule structures is that there is always some degree of state control to which a municipality is subject and some degree of autonomy invested in a local body. That variability, and the state-to-state differences in relations with local government, is where there's an added layer of complexity for transparency.

How a state and local government interact can impact everything from how finances are handled to how public utility decisions are made. We'll be continuing to explore these as we work toward crafting meaningful transparency recommendations.

There is a great body of existing research looking into the implications of Dillon's Rule, home rule, and charters, as well as numerous listings of states with home rule and those with Dillon's Rule. The Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program has detailed research on Dillon's Rule, including a listing of which states employ it. The National League of Cities has a City 101 Guide that includes an explainer of local government authority.