Regional and local officials hold positions in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at the local level. They include mayors, commissioners, and city and county council members. These officials direct regional legal services, public health departments, and police protection. They serve on housing, budget, and employment committees and develop special programs to improve communities.
History of Regional and Local Official Careers
The first U.S. colonies adopted the English shire form of government. This form was 1,000 years old and served as the administrative arm of both the national and local governments; a county in medieval England was overseen by a sheriff (a title which comes from the original term shire reeve) appointed by the crown and was represented by two members in Parliament.
When America’s founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t make any specific provisions for the governing of cities and counties. This allowed state governments to define themselves; when drawing up their own constitutions, the states essentially considered county governments to be extensions of the state government.
City governments, necessary for dealing with increased industry and trade, evolved during the 19th century. Population growth and suburban development helped to strengthen local governments after World War I. County governments grew even stronger after World War II, due to counties’ rising revenues and increased independence from the states.
The Job of Regional and Local Officials
There are a variety of different forms of local government across the country, but they all share similar concerns. County and city governments make sure that the local streets are free of crime as well as free of potholes. They create and improve regional parks and organize music festivals and outdoor theater events to be staged in these parks. They identify community problems and help to solve them in original ways. For example, King County in Washington State, in an effort to solve the problem of unemployment among those recently released from jail, developed a baking training program for county inmates. The inmates’ new talents with danishes and bread loaves opened up opportunities for good-paying jobs in grocery store bakeries all across the county. King County also has many youth programs, including the Paul Robeson Scholar-Athlete Award to recognize students who excel in both academics and athletics.
The Innovative Farmer Program in Huron County, Michigan, was developed to introduce new methods of farming to keep agriculture part of the county’s economy. The program is studying new cover-crops, tillage systems, and herbicides. In Onondaga County, New York, the public library started a program of basic reading instruction for deaf adults. In Broward County, Florida, a program provides a homelike setting for supervised visitation and parenting training for parents who are separated from their children due to abuse or domestic violence.
The needs for consumer protection, water quality, and affordable housing increase every year. Regional or local officials are elected to deal with issues such as public health, legal services, housing, and budget and fiscal management. They attend meetings and serve on committees. They know about the industry and agriculture of the area as well as the specific problems facing constituents, and they offer educated solutions, vote on laws, and generally represent the people in their districts.
There are two forms of county government: the commissioner/ administrator form, in which the county board of commissioners appoints an administrator who serves the board, and the council/executive form, in which a county executive is the chief administrative officer of the district and has the power to veto ordinances enacted by the county board. A county government may include a chief executive, who directs regional services; council members, who are the county legislators; a county clerk, who keeps records of property titles, licenses, etc.; and a county treasurer, who is in charge of the receipt and disbursement of money.
A county government doesn’t tax its citizens, so its money comes from state aid, fees, and grants. A city government funds its projects and programs with money from sales tax and other local taxes, block grants, and state aid. Directing these funds and services are elected executives. Mayors serve as the heads of city governments who are elected by the general populace. Their specific functions vary depending on the structure of their government. In mayor-council governments, both the mayor and the city council are popularly elected. The council is responsible for formulating city ordinances, but the mayor exercises control over the actions of the council. In such governments, the mayor usually plays a dual role, serving not only as chief executive officer but also as an agent of the city government responsible for such functions as maintaining public order, security, and health. In a commission government, the people elect a number of commissioners, each of whom serves as head of a city department. The presiding commissioner is usually the mayor. The final type of municipal government is the council/manager form. Here, the council members are elected by the people, and one of their functions is to hire a city manager to administer the city departments. A mayor is elected by the council to chair the council and officiate at important municipal functions.
Regional and Local Official Career Requirements
Courses in government, civics, and history will give you an understanding of the structure of government. English courses are important because you will need good writing skills to communicate with constituents and other government officials. Math and accounting will help you develop analytical skills for examining statistics and demographics. Journalism classes will develop research and interview skills for identifying problems and developing programs.
To serve on a local government, your experience and understanding of the city or county are generally more important than your educational background. Some mayors and council members are elected to their positions because they’ve lived in the region for a long time and have had experience with local industry and other concerns. For example, someone with years of farming experience may be the best candidate to serve a small agricultural community. Voters in local elections may be more impressed by a candidate’s previous occupations and roles in the community than they are by a candidate’s postsecondary degrees.
That said, most regional and local officials still hold an undergraduate degree, and many hold a graduate degree. Popular areas of study include public administration, law, economics, political science, history, and English. Regardless of your major as an undergraduate, you are likely to be required to take classes in English literature, statistics, foreign language, western civilization, and economics.
To be successful in this field, you must deeply understand the city and region you serve. You need to be knowledgeable about the local industry, private businesses, and social problems. You should also have lived for some time in the region in which you hope to hold office.
You also need good people skills to be capable of listening to the concerns of constituents and other officials and exchanging ideas with them. Other useful qualities are problem-solving skills and creativity to develop innovative programs.
Exploring Regional and Local Official Careers
Depending on the size of your city or county, you can probably become involved with your local government at a young age. Your council members and other government officials should be more accessible to you than state and federal officials, so take advantage of that. Visit the county court house and volunteer in whatever capacity you can with county-organized programs, such as tutoring in a literacy program or leading children’s reading groups at the public library.
You can also become involved with local elections. Many candidates for local and state offices welcome young people to assist with campaigns. As a volunteer, you may make calls, post signs, and get to see a candidate at work. You will also have the opportunity to meet others who have an interest in government, and the experience will help you to gain a more prominent role in later campaigns.
Another way to learn about government is to become involved in an issue that interests you. Maybe there’s an old building in your neighborhood you’d like to save from destruction, or maybe you have some ideas for youth programs or programs for senior citizens. Research what’s being done about your concerns and come up with solutions to offer to local officials.
Every city in the United States requires the services of local officials. In some cases, the services of a small town or suburb may be overseen by the government of a larger city or by the county government. According to the National Association of Counties, 48 states have operational county governments—a total of over 3,030 counties. (Connecticut and Rhode Island are the only two states without counties.) Counties range in size from the 67 residents in Loving County, Texas, to the more than 9 million residents of Los Angeles County in California. There are also 33 governments that are consolidations of city and county governments; New York, Denver, and San Francisco are among them.
There is no direct career path for gaining public office. The way you pursue a local office will be greatly affected by the size and population of the region in which you live. When running for mayor or council of a small town, you may have no competition at all. On the other hand, to become mayor of a large city, you need extensive experience in the city’s politics. If you’re interested in pursuing a local position, research the backgrounds of your city mayor, county commissioner, and council members to get an idea of how they approached their political careers.
Some officials stumble into government offices after some success with political activism on the grassroots level. Others have had success in other areas, such as agriculture, business, and law enforcement, and use their experience to help improve the community. Many local politicians started their careers by assisting in someone else’s campaign or advocating for an issue.
Some successful local and regional officials maintain their positions for many years. Others hold local office for only one or two terms, then return full-time to their businesses and other careers. You might also choose to use a local position as a stepping stone to a position of greater power within the region or to a state office. Many mayors of the largest cities run for governor or state legislature and may eventually move into federal office.
In general, salaries for government officials tend to be lower than what the official could make working in the private sector. In many local offices, officials volunteer their time, work only part time, or are given a nominal salary. According to a salary survey published in 2002 by the International City/County Management Association, the chief elected official of a city makes an average salary of $11,300 a year. The average salary for city managers was $85,000. Local government clerks average about $44,071, and treasurers earn $46,200.
A job with a local or regional government may or may not provide benefits. Some positions may include accounts for official travel and other expenses.
Most government officials work in a typical office setting. Some may work a regular 40-hour week, while others work long hours and weekends. Though some positions may only be considered part-time, they may take up nearly as many hours as full-time work. Officials have the opportunity to meet with the people of the region, but they also devote a lot of time to clerical duties. If serving a large community, they may have assistants to help with phones, filing, and preparing documents.
Because officials must be appointed or elected in order to keep their jobs, determining long-range career plans can be difficult. There may be extended periods of unemployment, where living off of savings or other jobs may be necessary. Because of the low pay of some positions, officials may have to work another job even while they serve in office. This can result in little personal time and the need to juggle many different responsibilities at once.
Regional and Local Official Careers Outlook
Though the form and structure of state and federal government are not likely to change, the form of your local and county government can be altered by popular vote. Every election, voters somewhere in the country are deciding whether to keep their current forms of government or to introduce new forms. But these changes don’t greatly affect the number of officials needed to run your local government. The chances of holding office will be greater in a smaller community. The races for part-time and nonpaying offices will also be less competitive.
The issues facing a community will have the most effect on the jobs of local officials. In a city with older neighborhoods, officials deal with historic preservation, improvements in utilities, and water quality. In a growing city with many suburbs, officials have to make decisions regarding development, roads, and expanded routes for public transportation.
The federal government has made efforts to shift costs to the states. If this continues, states may offer less aid to counties. A county government’s funds are also affected by changes in property taxes.