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Roles of Local Government

Local governments are an accepted layer of government throughout the world, in democracies, theocracies, monarchies; in countries with economies that operate on the free market system, as well as those where economic activity is tightly controlled by the government.

Local governments emerged as people moved in close proximity to each other to facilitate commerce, share a common defense, and take advantage of other amenities made possible by population density. It is a generally accepted principle of government structure and functions that areas supporting greater numbers of people generally need different levels of services and different regulations than areas that are more rural.

Local governments are considered by the courts as “creatures of the state,” meaning that the state government, through its constitution or laws, empower local governments and define their structure. Cities, villages, counties, school districts, special districts—and townships—exist because Michigan’s Constitution either allows or requires the legislature to authorize these entities to perform specific functions for their inhabitants and other property owners. If the provisions of the Constitution or state laws that enable these local governments to function were to be repealed, those local government entities would disappear, and their services and programs would either also disappear or be reassigned to some other entity.

For the sake of argument, all local governments could be done away with and their programs and services be delivered by the state or some regional entity. However, political pressures to provide the same services to all people regardless of the need or ability to fund—what public policy experts call “homogenization of services” would drive up the cost of government for everyone, and the resulting quality and quantity of services would not likely fit local circumstances and needs in many areas. Stakeholders would have little influence on decisions affecting them, just as is the case for issues currently under the auspices of the state and federal government. Individuals would feel little or no “ownership” or responsibility for the greater public good.

Democratic Representation

Because Michigan’s local governments are governed by public bodies and officials that are elected by voters, the residents of local governments strongly influence the provision of local government services, the quality and quantity of those services, the rates of taxation to pay for those programs and services, the scope of local regulations on personal behavior and other activities, and how governance is actually performed.

Voters decide at regularly scheduled elections who will sit on governing boards and who will hold offices that are designated by state law or local charters to be determined by election rather than appointment. Elected officials make decisions within the scope of authority provided to their offices by using their best judgment or by the influence of voters and other persons whose opinions are persuasive or who can wield political power and who can impact the outcome of elections. Elected officials are accountable to the voters, who decide whether they shall continue in office when they stand for reelection. For egregious breaches of the public trust, public officials can be removed from office prior to their term end through the recall process.

Civic Engagement

Local governments provide many opportunities for individuals to directly participate in decisions and in the delivery of programs and services.

Laws requiring transparency in decision-making, sometimes called “sunshine laws,” require local governments to open their meetings to members of the public and to allow any person to address the public body. Michigan’s Open Meetings Act provides a framework for the public to address governmental entities, consistent with rules adopted by the public body. The Freedom of Information Act allows individuals to inspect and obtain copies of public documents, again according to rules and procedures provided for in the Act.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan is an outstanding source of information helpful to people who want to know more about state and local government and important current policy issues. The CRC’s first executive director, Lent Upson, emphasized that, the right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.

Local governments have an obligation to inform their residents about important issues, so many offer websites on which current information on local issues are posted, as well as to inform the public how to contact local officials to obtain additional information. Unfortunately, in rural Michigan there are still many areas were broadband internet connectivity is not available and that limitation prevents many rural communities from taking advantage of social networking and web-based communications. Many communities provide newsletters to keep their residents informed. Additional information on civic engagement is available by clicking here.

Many public bodies welcome stakeholders to participate in advisory committees and there are opportunities for individuals to be appointed to various boards and commissions that are empowered by law to make binding decisions. Examples include boards of review that hear appeals of property valuation determines made by the local governments property tax assessor; planning commissions that develop a comprehensive community growth plan and make zoning decisions on land uses consistent with that plan; and various other statutory boards and commissions such as a zoning board of appeals, salary and compensation commission, historical commission, or downtown development authority.

Individuals can influence some local government decisions when state law provides that a decision is subject to referendum, which is the right to circulate a petition to have a government decision be submitted to the voters at an election. There are also some limited opportunities in state law for electors, registered voters or property owners to submit petitions to initiate a decision not previously acted on by a governing body. And, of course, voting at elections is a fundamental right to participate in the democratic process. Some people contend that voting is not only a right, but an obligation. While the outcome of any lawful election is binding, many people would agree that when a large number of people vote the outcome is more likely to reflect the true will of the people.

Civic engagement also includes the opportunity to run for public office. Local communities vary in the level of competition for seats on elective boards and commissions. In townships, interested registered voters can run for the township board that governs the overall township operations, or the library board or park commission that oversees narrower functions, if one has been established. Some townships still have constables, an elective office with limited law enforcement responsibilities.

Most local governments also offer volunteer opportunities that are either short-term or longer term engagements to assist in the direct delivery of programs and services. One of the most valuable volunteer experiences is service on the local government’s fire department. Larger local governments generally do not have volunteers involved in their fire departments, but smaller entities augment their career fire fighters or rely entirely on persons who respond to emergencies when summoned by radios or pagers. State law requires extensive training prior to engaging in fire suppression activities. Some communities pay their “first responders” on a per call basis, but others still operate on a non-compensated, strictly voluntary basis.

Local governments also offer shorter-term volunteer opportunities such as park and cemetery beautification projects, recycling or clean-up days, or volunteering at festivals and holiday celebrations.


This page last updated on 4/28/2015.

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