Diversity Dashboard Defined: Types of Local Government

Posted on February 4, 2018

Prior to reaching out to all state municipal leagues to request sharing of data, our Diversity Dashboard team solidified definitions for each of the fields of data they seek to collect & analyze.

Ashley Brown & Rachel Holder define Types of Local Government classifications used in the Diversity Dashboard:

A local government is an administrative body for a specific geographic area that is a subdivision of a major political unit (such as a nation or state). The U.S. Census Bureau divides local governments into two primary types — (1) General Purpose Governments and (2) Special Purpose Governments. General purpose governments are further broken down into subtypes that includes counties, municipalities, and town or townships. Special purpose governments have two subtypes including special districts and independent school districts. That being said, special purpose governments have not been included in the data collection for this project.

The end of this blog post includes the Census Bureau’s definitions of each of these types of local government.

The National League of Cities provides further details on the characteristics of local government types.
Additionally, every five years, the Census Bureau conducts a Census of Governments, which includes state and local government. According to 2012 Census, there are approximately 90,056 local governments, including:

  • General Purpose: 38,910
  • Counties: 3,031
  • Municipal: 19,519
  • Town or Township: 16,360
  • Special Purpose Government:   51,146
  • Special districts: 38,226
  • Independent School districts: 12,880

The Census Bureau recently completed the 2017 Census of Governments, and the data should be released in the next several months.
Forms Local Government Leadership
Local government units rely on the leadership of both politically elected officials and professional administration to make operational and executive decisions.  The purview of these units is typically limited to this local area where they are able to pass laws, carry out local services, and collect taxes.
Forms of Local Government types from NLC
Council – Manager:  Considered a weak-mayor system in which the council oversees general administration, sets the budget, and makes policy decisions. In this setting, managers carry out the day-to-day operations of the unit. A mayor may be selected by the council on a rotating basis or elected with voting powers similar to a council member. This structure is most common in municipalities over 10,000 population.
Mayor – Council: Considered a strong-mayor system in which the mayor is elected separately from the governing council and is often a full-time, paid position. Depending on the charter, this position may have weak or strong executive powers that are seperate from the  legislative body. Some municipalities still appoint a professional manager that has limited operational oversight.
Commission: citizens elect individual commissioners to a governing board where each commissioner oversees specific aspects of the government.These commissioners have both legislative and executive functions and are typically found in smaller, southern local governments.
Town Meeting: each voter who attends these meetings has the power to set policy and appoint elected officials. This form of government is very uncommon but is considered the truest form of democracy.
Representative Town Meeting: voters select a large number of citizens to represent them at town meetings, where only they can vote. This form of government is the least common with less than 1% of municipalities utilizing it.
A more thorough discussion of these five governance structures can be found on the NLC website.
Local Government Definition from U.S. Census Bureau
County governments: Organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes and established to provide general government; includes those governments designed as counties, parishes in Louisiana, and boroughs in Alaska.
Municipal governments: Organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes and established to provide government for a specific concentration of population in a defined area; includes those governments designated as cities, villages, boroughs (except in Alaska), and towns (except in the six New England states, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin).
Township governments: Organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes and established to provide general government for areas defined without regard to population concentration; includes those governments designated as towns in Connecticut, Maine (including organized plantations), Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire (including organized locations), New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin, and townships in other states.
Special district governments: All organized local entities (other than counties, municipalities, townships, or school districts) authorized by state law to provide only one or a limited number of designated functions, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, and commissions.
School district governments: Organized local entities providing public elementary, secondary, and for higher education which, under state law, have sufficient administration and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments. Excludes dependent public school systems of county, municipal, township, or state governments.
National League of Cities. (2017). Local US Governments. Retrieved January 14, 2018.
National League of Cities. (2017). Local US Governments. Retrieved January 14, 2018.
Anzures, J. (2015). US Census Bureau Federal, State, and Local Governments Main Page. Retrieved January 14, 2018.

Close window