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All government is local, some more local than others



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September 03, 2013 | 02:21 PM
Within our American democracy, the source of the government's authority is the consent of the people to be governed.

This form of government also allows for direct citizen involvement in a number of ways, and is perhaps most evident at the local level.

While the spotlight often shines on state and federal issues, it is perhaps issues occurring at the local level that have the most impact on peoples' lives.

Wisconsin is comprised of 72 counties, 190 cities, 404 villages, and 1,257 towns. Those units of local governments are organized in similar ways.

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Like state and federal government, local governments have an executive official who manages the daily affairs of their municipality, along with a legislative body that creates ordinances which govern a variety of activities within its legal jurisdiction.

State government may also delegate some of its power to local governments while retaining some authority over the form and functions of those units.

The local functions exercised by counties vary widely, but generally include the powers to levy and collect property taxes, construct and maintain county highways, engage in land use planning, maintain parks and recreational facilities. Counties are also considered an administrative arm of the state, as they are required to carry out or enforce certain state laws.

For example, counties maintain judicial court records, manage state elections, retain vital statistics and property records (birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and property deeds), and enforce and prosecute state criminal laws.

In addition, counties administer a number of social service programs, often funded by state or federal government, such as child support and FamilyCare.

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Besides a county board chair, a county may have a county executive or county administrator, either elected to office, or appointed by the county board.

Cities and villages share many common features. Unlike counties, cities and villages are specifically granted "home rule" authority under the Wisconsin Constitution. That authority allows cities and villages to determine their local affairs, subject to state laws.

Both have annexation powers, which towns do not have. Mayors serve as the chief executive officer of a city, with a city council as its legislative body, while a village president oversees the functions of a village, along with a board of trustees.

Towns provide some of the same services as cities and villages but are organized differently. The town chair and supervisors are charged with operating local polling places, conducting property tax assessment, ensuring fire protection and ambulance service, providing a recycling program and maintaining town roads.

Many towns also provide additional services at the local level such as garbage collection and police protection.

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The major distinguishing feature of towns is they continue to operate as a direct democracy, most evidenced by the annual town meeting. Once a year, qualified residents who have lived in the town for at least 10 days before an annual meeting may discuss and vote on the town's business, including the property tax level and the purchase or sale of town property. Thus, towns are governed by the people more directly than cities and villages, where major decisions are generally made by elected representatives. Towns are a great example of grassroots government at work.

Being able to address problems at the local level is most valuable when making a decision to serve either at the state or federal level.

In fact, many of my legislative colleagues of both parties were former city council persons, village trustees, town board officials, and county supervisors.

Local government is truly closest to the people, and, to paraphrase a notable quote, all government is local. Decisions made at the local level often times have more immediate impact on residents than those made at higher levels.

Either positively or negatively, local government affects our daily lives and gives us an opportunity to view government close up and in person, and to get involved.

Senator Kedzie can be reached in Madison at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or by calling toll-free 1 (800) 578-1457. He may be reached in the district at (262) 742-2025 or online at www.senatorkedzie.com

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