Components of Local Government

Standard 6.10: Components of Local Government

Explain the major components of local government in Massachusetts. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T6.10]

Town Hall
Image by Kevin Norris from Pixabay 

Look at a map of the United States and you will see towns and cities in every part of every state. The Census Bureau considers towns and cities to be incorporated places that "expand (or contract) over time as population and commercial activity increases (or decreases)" (Understanding Place in Census Bureau Products, slide 3).

There are over 19,000 incorporated towns and cities in the country. Those with a population of 50,000 or more are generally considered to be cities. New York City is the nation's largest with more than 8.6 million people.

Towns and cities have governments that provide services to the people who live there. In Massachusetts, there are 50 cities and 301 towns, each with its own local government (see Forms of Local Government: Commonwealth of Massachusetts).

Local governments have an executive (a Select Board or a Mayor) and legislative branch (a town meeting or town/city council), depending on the size of the community (see the local government organizational chart from Mass Audubon).

    1. INVESTIGATE: Town Meetings as a Form of Local Government

    The town meeting is one of our most enduring political legacies from colonial America. A town meeting happens when members of a community gather to discuss issues and make decisions about them.* 

    Town Meeting
    A Town Meeting in Huntington, Vermont, by Redjar, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

    A town meeting is a form of direct democracy in which people from the town, rather than elected representatives, make decisions about government policies and practices. Read the Rules of a Town Meeting.

    The earliest recorded town meeting was in Dorchester, Massachusetts, October 8, 1633. In colonial America, only White males participated in town meetings.

    Today, communities in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and in the western part of the United States hold town meetings where everyone can attend and speak, although only registered voters can vote. In Vermont, Town Meeting Day is a designated once-a-year public holiday. 

    Switzerland is the only other country in the world with town meetings. Every Swiss community, from alpine villages to the city of Zurich, has town meeting governance. In Swiss communities with large populations, a local parliament replaces the all-community member meeting (Clark & Teachout, 2012).

    There are two types of town meetings in the United States: Open and Representative.

    The time-honored traditions of New England-style town meetings were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the spring of 2020, communities struggled to hold town meetings while upholding state and local policies and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines that recommended limiting large gatherings of people while maintaining social distancing protocols. Some towns chose to meet virtually on Zoom. Others opted for outdoor meetings on high school football fields; others chose large indoor facilities where social distancing could be maintained. Not everyone found the process either productive or fair. One parent in a western Massachusetts community called it "democracy only for those with access to transportation; child care; time; agency to speak long after your stated limit is up" (Goodman, 2020, para. 4).

    In fact, the pandemic only heightened the already-present complexities of town meetings in today's society where not every community member has the time or resources to participate in making decisions in face-to-face meetings held in the evening or on a weekend. The future of town meeting-style direct democracy is still to be decided, but new formats that offer more ways for more people to particiate may be needed.

    *Note: The term town meeting is also used in modern political campaigns where candidates meet face-to-face with voters to present ideas and answer questions from the audience. Television networks often televise these as “town meetings” when they are held by presidential candidates. 

    Suggested Learning Activity

    • Role-Play a Town Meeting

    Online Resources for Town Meetings

    2. UNCOVER: Democratic Decision Making in Cooperative Organizations and Worker/Employee-Owned Companies

    October is Co-op Month, celebrated nationally since 1964. Co-op is short for cooperatives - "democratic businesses and organizations, equally owned and controlled by a group of people. There are worker co-ops, consumer co-ops, producer co-ops, financial co-ops, housing co-ops, and more. In a cooperative, one member has one vote" (Thoen, 2014, para. 3).

    Moving Van
    Moving Van Company Employees Load a Moving Van, by Rharel, Public Domain

    Cooperatives are everywhere. In the region near the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus there are food co-ops, agricultural co-ops, arts co-ops, compost and recycling co-ops, food sharing co-ops, credit unions, and worker-owned businesses installing solar panels, brewing beer, and designing and building sustainable structures. 

    The number of worker-owned companies and community co-ops is growing throughout the country. About 17 million people, or 12% of the U.S. workforce, are employed in worker-owned enterprises (Case, 2010). There are two main types of worker-owned organizations:

    Some worker-owned companies consist of small groups of artisans or craft workers; for example, Rock City Coffee in Rockland, Maine or PV Squared Solar and Real Pickles in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Large agricultural cooperatives like Land O’Lakes and Ocean Spray have also become major players in dairy production and fruit farming, earning hundreds of millions in annual revenue as member-owned firms.

    The democratic decision-making that happens in co-ops and worker-owned organizations provides models for how many businesses and government agencies are, and could be, run. Using different procedures and formats, members run these organizations democratically. Participating in democratic workplaces offer workers powerful reasons to invest time and energy in making decisions through their voices and votes.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Create a Podcast or Video
      • Interview employees that work at a local co-op or worker-owned enterprise to learn what it is like to work in an employee-owned organization.
      • What are the advantages and drawbacks of working in this type of organization. 
    • State Your View
      • What skills, knowledge, and competencies do you think worker-owners need to successfully support their organizations?  
      • At PV Squared Solar, a prospective worker-owner must work at the company for a year and then complete an additional one year worker-owner training program dealing with all aspects of cooperative organizations including socially responsible business practices (Solar Design and Installation Company Empowers Employees to be Owners). 
    • Propose an Educational Change
      • How might a school classroom become a more democratic setting where students feel like owners of their education?
      • What might a student-owned classroom look like in everyday practice?
      • See Topic 1, Standard 1 Engage: How Can School Classrooms Become More Democratic Spaces? (not yet available on the edtechbooks platform)

    Online Resources for Cooperatives and Employee-Owned Businesses

    3. ENGAGE: Should Communities Declare Themselves Safe and Sanctuary Cities?

    A safe or sanctuary community is “a city or county in which undocumented immigrants are protected from deportation or prosecution for violations of U.S. federal immigration laws” (Longely, 2019, para. 1).

    Sanctuary City
    Jesse Arguin reaffirming Berkley as a sanctuary city, by Alfred Twu, licenced under CC0 1.0

    In opposition to the federal immigration policies of President Donald Trump’s administration, communities all across the United States have declared themselves to be safe or sanctuary cities.

    In safe cities, local officials, including police officers, are prevented from taking actions based on a person’s actual or perceived immigration status (see Northampton council will vote on ‘safe city’ ordinance; Greenfield’s safe community resolution passed by the Greenfield Human Rights Commission in 2017).

    In Massachusetts, Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Lawrence, Newton, Northampton, and Somerville passed safe or sanctuary city resolutions by mid-2019. 

    Suggested Learning Activity

    • Argue For and Against
      • Are Sanctuary Jurisdictions a Good Policy? (resources from the debate website ProCon.org)
        • Is a safe city designation needed if a community’s police department has a policy of not asking for an individual’s immigrant status?
        • What should a community do if the federal government threatens or decides to withhold funding from communities that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement by declaring themselves to be safe cities?
        • Is a safe city designation needed as a symbolic way to oppose federal immigration policies that community considers unfairly target people of color?

    Online Resources for Safe and Sanctuary Cities

    Standard 6.10 Conclusion

    To explore different dimensions of local government, INVESTIGATE examined town meetings as a form of direct democracy used in some communities in Massachusetts and across the nation. To provide a contrast to how local governments function, UNCOVER looked at the practices of democratic decision making in cooperative organizations and worker/employee-owned companies. ENGAGE asked whether communities should declare themselves safe or sanctuary cities.