Grassroots Government: Are Today’s Local Governments Losing Ground?

By Brooke Chaplan, Special for  USDR

Local government consists on two levels: counties, boroughs, or parishes; municipalities, towns, or cities. The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of local authority, only federal and state. States must grant power to local governments and traditionally have done so in the four areas of structural, functional, fiscal, and  personnel.

Rules of  Power
Dillon’s rule applies to all municipalities in 39 states; eight apply it to select municipalities. The rule, derived from a pair of 1868 court decisions by Iowa Judge John F. Dillion, asserted a local government may engage only in activity specifically granted it by the state. An 1871 decision by Michigan Judge Thomas Cooley challenged this, asserting local governments possess inherent rights. Courts in Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Texas upheld Cooley until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Dillon’s decision in 1903 and 1923. Ten states apply home rule, under which the state grants power in limited specific areas to local government with local decisions subject to constant judicial  interpretation.

Attempts to Extend  Powers
Local governments attempt to extend their powers through legislation. One example, the Charlotte, NC passage of the trans-gender bathroom law, garnered international attention and boycotts by entertainers and corporations, calling it a civil rights violation. Federal law governs civil rights, the product of a grassroots movement in the 1960s to obtain redress in an area local government  ignored.

Local Power  Losses
Local government once controlled education through local school districts and boards. During the past 30 years, that power eroded due to a combination of low academic standards in some localities, poor student performance and varying curriculum quality that spurred a federal assertion of power. Federal intervention benefitted disadvantaged, special needs, gifted and non-English speaking students.
The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014, led to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation. On April 19, 2016, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry approved an agreement between the DOJ and Ferguson requiring numerous changes including police diversity training and that on duty officers and jail workers wear body  cameras.

The division of local, state, and federal law remain in constant flux. Those with an interest of working in this area often pursue a juris doctorate or an MPA Master of public administration. In recent years, local grassroots movements have brought to light injustices that the state or federal government stepped in to correct. Only time and legal decisions will tell if this trend  continues.

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