Elected local governments in the United States cover a variety of different types of local government entities, including counties; cities, towns and townships (municipalities); school districts; and other special purposes local governments. Each state organizes their local governments differently, and there are often considerable variations in local government practices within each state.
Ensuring that local governments are able to function as empowered and effective platforms of collective local decision-making and service delivery requires that local governments are well-regulated and operate as part of well-structured system of intergovernmental relations:
- Sound local government structure: local governments should be formed in a way that ensures that local jurisdictions are neither too large or to small; that local functions are not excessively fragmented; and that effective mechanisms for intergovernmental coordination are in place to support collective challenges, such as metropolitan growth and rural transformation;
- Empowered local governments: local government should be assigned appropriate powers and functions, while the preemption of local powers by state governments should be prevented;
- Democratic local governance: Local governments should be governed in a way that is representative, deliberative and accountable. This requires that people participate in local elections and local decision-making, but also that local governments are led by a deliberative elected body; that local constituents have meaningful voice (by limiting the number of constituents per local representative); that local governments use representative electoral mechanisms; and that vertical and horizontal checks and balances are in place at the local level;
- Evidence-based decision-making and effective local administration: Local decision-making and administration should be consultative, results-oriented and evidence-based; local administration should be non-political, professional and efficient;
- Fiscal federalism: Local governments should have adequate access to financial resources and adequate fiscal autonomy to achieve the community’s priorities and be adequately funded to support state and federal priorities, where appropriate.
An initial exploration of the state of local democracy in the United States suggests that in many states, there is considerable room for strengthening democratic inclusion and representation at the local level.