Local Government

With our media’s constant barrage of information regarding the debates and discussions taking place in the marble buildings of our national government, we often overlook what is happening around us in our city halls. Consider the following points about local government; they may help you, a stakeholder in your community, rethink its importance and what role you can play as a citizen:

Local government is the most fundamental form of democracy:

  • Local government makes the decisions that affect us most directly, such as how much money should be allocated to police and fire departments, schools, and even towards filling potholes on the roads we drive every day. [2]

Local government makes laws that most directly shape our behavior:

  • From determining public transportation timetables to enacting ordinances that regulate how we dress, the rules our local governments create can influence how we carry out our daily lives. [3]

Local government gives us the opportunity to be active citizens:

  • Since decisions are made right where we live, we have the greatest chance to talk directly with our elected officials, challenge their positions, and influence their decisions; we can even go to a city council meeting to address council members and our fellow citizens, potentially impacting developments in our community.

Local government truly represents our idealized vision of democracy; everyday citizens can participate in the democratic process and often shape the future of their locality. The smaller scale of local government empowers individuals, bridges communities, and forges interpersonal bonds of trust and mutual identification. When taken as a whole, our communities, cities, and localities define our nation. In the words of famous French democratic theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, our local governments form the very “spirit of freedom itself.” [4]

[1] J. Eric Oliver, Shang E. Ha, and Zachary Callen, Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 8. [2] Oliver et al., Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, 24. [3] Oliver et al., Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, 26. [4] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America: And Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan, ed. Isaac Kramnick (London: Penguin, 2003), 73.

richmond city government

Understanding the context of the city of Richmond is absolutely critical to effective engagement in any setting. The unique governmental organization found in Virginia is the first starting point in trying to grasp the politics of both the city and the region.

Local government in Virginia consists of three primary organizations:

  1. Independent cities 
  2. Counties
  3. Incorporated towns

Independent cities in Virginia were established in order to provide various urban services to areas of high-population density. Unlike many other states, however, independent cities in Virginia are distinct governmental entities from a county; no county authority or taxing power can extend into the boundaries of a city. Essentially, counties operate like cities or towns, in that they administer governmental services and implement state rules just as any other governmental entity would. Essentially, in Virginia, city government ends at the city boundary, and county government has no authority within the boundaries of a city.

This means that Richmond, while surrounded by Henrico and Chesterfield counties, has a government that operates independently of the county governments. That being said, the city and the counties have very intertwined relationships with varying degrees of interdependence for certain services and regional development. For example, Henrico County relies on purchasing a significant portion of its water supply from the City of Richmond. 

Learn more about the local government division in Virginia by reading the state-issued report: “Virginia Government in Brief.”

The Dillon Rule plays a large part in this dynamic, since it endows local governments with only three powers:

  1. Those specifically given to them by the Virginia General Assembly
  2. Those implied from a specific grant of authority
  3. Those that are essential and indispensable to the purposes of government

In short, the Dillon Rule is the exercise of state sovereignty over a local government; any power that a local government has exists because state law expliciltly gave it. If there is any reasonable doubt that a local government has a certain power, the Dillon Rule would imply that it does not. However, there are already certain functions in practice that give localities clear direction and the authority to act. These functions include planning, zoning, and taxation.

The Dillon Rule constrains localities in matters of new governmental concern, thereby limiting innovative governmental responses. Because it means that localities can only act in certain specific ways, a local government is arguably prevented from developing quick and specifically tailored responses to its unique problems, as well as delivering services with a high degree of both efficiency and quality. Arguably, the often one size fits all solutions that a state may create do not serve all local governments well.

In this way, the Dillon Rule can pose challenges.

Read more about the Dillon Rule here

Since the year 2004, Richmond has functioned under a mayor-council form of government. The city itself is divided into nine voting districts determined by various geographic and demographic factors. The highlights of the city’s government include:

For a full breakdown of city government’s different branches, view the city government’s organizational chart.