Chapter 7: Executives

7.A – Introduction

      The title of this chapter draws an important distinction in our discussion of executive leadership in state and local government; unfortunately, it is a distinction that provides less clarity than one would expect.  In 18th and 19th century state and local government, the “executive” was generally thought of in terms of elected leadership; a governor, a state attorney general, a mayor, or perhaps even a sheriff came readily to mind.  The executive, therefore, was tied directly to elective office and was often directly accountable to the people via the voting mechanism.

      In the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, a major change began to take place in this area.  The rise of what is called Progressivism led to a concerted nationwide effort to clean up politics, particularly at the municipal level and over time at the state level, as well.  The national government was also affected by Progressive reforms, although perhaps not in the same way or to the same degree this social movement transformed that state and local government.

      The chapter informs the reader about the unique qualities of the political and career administrative executive aspects of state and local government.  Understanding the offices, both their similarities and their differences, will help the reader gain a better understanding of how state and local executives operate across the country and in the reader’s own state and local community.

Learning Objectives

This chapter will discuss:

  • the power and role of the governor.
  • state executive branch leaders.
  • the roles of county and city elected leaders.
  • special districts as quasi executive/legislative institutions.
  • the role of administrative executives.
  • the role of executives in sustainability.

7.B – Governor

      The term Governor has many meanings.  On a mechanical device, a governor is something that regulates the speed of a machine, often a complex process.  The British for some period used the word when addressing someone worthy of respect.  The word also refers to a military commandant.  More commonly, a governor is a head of state, a key actor in a governmental body.  So, do all of these definitions apply to our current topic: state governors?  Unexpected, the answer is Yes!  A governor shapes the speed and direction of political debate.  The governor is, in fact, a military commander — he or she does have the power to “call up” or activate the state National Guard in U.S. states.  The office of governor is a position of respect and is the ceremonial head of state as well as being a key actor in a larger governing process.

      Prior to the American Revolution, colonial governors served as executive leaders of a Crown Colony.  In early colonial days, the powerful landowners chose governors — usually white men of wealth and social stature.  The governor, along with a quasi-legislative council, led the colony in countless ways — managing resources; developing plans for sustainability and growth; maintaining civic virtue through the enforcement of laws; and making treaties or agreements with indigenous peoples and with other colonies.  Governors also appointed individuals to help accomplish key tasks. As the British Colonies became more developed, the Crown government played a much larger role in appointing governors and various administrative executives to serve as representatives of the home nation to collect taxes and assess fees, and to generally enforce the will of the British Monarch and his government on colonists.

      In the colonial period just as today, the governor is a key figure for innovative leadership, critical to establishing sustainable states and communities.  The often-tragic imperialistic interactions between indigenous peoples and colonists represent a sad chapter in the development of democratic government in our county.  It is useful at the outset of this chapter to imagine the circumstances faced by early colonists, moving from the familiarities of the continent of Europe to a place far less familiar and comprehensible to them.  An inability on the part of the nation’s early colonial governors to be successful innovators could have resulted in widespread disease and death among colonists and native tribes alike.

      Leadership then, as is the case today, is only as good as the ability of the leader to persuade others to follow him or her, and this ability is importantly shaped by a leader’s personality.  Popularity is one measure of the ability of a leader to persuade others to follow,1 to gain followers, and to gain their support for innovative ideas.2  Support can be particularly difficult to gain and maintain when promoting a vision of the future, a time and space unknown and often disturbing in consideration.  Innovation requires, along with uncommon insight, boldness of action in the face of the unknown.

      The dire consequences of failed innovative executive leadership still exist, but new consequences have emerged.  Mass starvation is perhaps less likely, but Homeland Security issues place the governor and his or her staff on the front line as the likely first responders to a crisis, manmade or brought on by the force of Nature.  For example, while failed river levees in New Orleans were ultimately a national government failure, the impact of Hurricane Katrina (2005) was immediate and devastating.  Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were called upon to exercise innovative executive leadership and — in this case as perhaps in no other hurricane-related tragedy of recent memory — the consequences of failed leadership were as bad, if not worse, than issues faced by now long-forgotten colonial governors of centuries past.

      In times of relative tranquility, a governor must do two principal things.  First, a governor must serve as a chief administrator, managing the steady course of government towards various goals.  Second, a governor must consider the future and identify areas where sustainability must be actively pursued.  A governor will likely use his or her chief executive role — the role of head of state — to promote policy innovations that will better serve state and local sustainability efforts.  The development of sound state and local energy policies is certainly a timely example of gubernatorial leadership; reduced reliance on imported fossil energy and increased development of state and local renewable energy sources are timely goals in this respect.  Governors’ efforts to promote literacy and improved educational attainment, combined with sustainable economic development providing good jobs and a quality lifestyle, are part of efforts to retain young people in states and local communities.3 And for those individuals least benefited in society, governors have played a critical role in promoting welfare-to-work programs.

7.B.I – Terms of Office and Eligibility:

      In the United States, governors hold four-year terms of office.  The exception to this occurs when governors are elected via special election to fill a governorship when the current governor has vacated the seat prior to completing his or her term of office.  One of the reasons that a sitting governor would not complete his or her term is related to election or appointment to another political office.  President George W. Bush was the incumbent governor of Texas when he was elected 43rd U.S. President in 2000.  A second reason that a sitting governor vacates the governorship prior to completing a term of office is due to losing a recall election.  Governor Gray Davis of California was recalled as governor in October 2003.   Following a successful election, the former film celebrity and now politician Arnold Schwarzenegger assumed the governorship.  A third reason why a governor might not complete a four-year term of office is due to death, incapacity or violation of residency requirements.  While death is determinable, incapacity is not entirely clear and is defined in part through legislative branch determination.  At times, governors will declare themselves as being incapable of finishing their proscribed term of office.  Finally, a governor might not complete his or her term of office due to resignation for reasons other than those mentioned previously.   Public corruption or other felony indictments or convictions may lead a sitting governor to resign from office.  In 2003, Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan was indicted on federal charges of political corruption, ultimately resulting in conviction on over a dozen counts of public corruption and a six and a half year prison sentence (note: Ryan is appealing the conviction).  In 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned from office because of his involvement with a prostitute.  Most recently, in 2009 Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office for corruption charges including allegedly trying to “sell” President Barrack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.

Alabama 10 7 Checkmark 30
Alaska 7 7 Checkmark 30
Arizona 10 25
Arkansas Checkmark 7 Checkmark 30
California 5 5 Checkmark 18
Colorado Checkmark 2 30
Connecticut Checkmark Checkmark 30
Delaware 12 6 30
Florida 7 7 30
Georgia 15 6 30
Hawaii 5 5 Checkmark 30
Idaho Checkmark 2 30
Illinois Checkmark 3 Checkmark 25
Indiana 5 5 Checkmark 30
Iowa 2 2 Checkmark 30
Kansas Checkmark
Kentucky Checkmark 6 30
Louisiana 5 5 Checkmark 25
Maine 15 5 30
Maryland 5 5 30
Massachusetts 7
Michigan Checkmark Checkmark 4 30
Minnesota Checkmark 1 Checkmark 25
Mississippi 20 5 Checkmark 30
Missouri 15 10 30
Montana Checkmark 2 Checkmark 25
Nebraska 5 5 30
Nevada 2 2 Checkmark 25
New Hampshire 7 30
New Jersey 20 7 30
New Mexico Checkmark 5 Checkmark 30
New York Checkmark 1 25
North Carolina 5 2 Checkmark 30
North Dakota Checkmark 5 Checkmark 30
Ohio Checkmark Checkmark Checkmark 18
Oklahoma 10 10 10 31
Oregon Checkmark 3 30
Pennsylvania Checkmark 7 Checkmark 30
Rhode Island 30 days 30 days 30 days 18
South Carolina 5 5 30
South Dakota Checkmark Checkmark Checkmark 18
Tennessee Checkmark 30
Texas Checkmark 5 30
Utah Checkmark 5 Checkmark 30
Vermont 4 Checkmark 18
Virginia Checkmark Checkmark 5 30
Washington Checkmark Checkmark Checkmark 18
West Virginia Checkmark 1 Checkmark 30
Wisconsin Checkmark Checkmark Checkmark 18
Wyoming Checkmark 5 Checkmark 30

Table 7.2 Qualifications for Governors

      In most states, when a sitting governor vacates the office prior to his or her term completion, the lieutenant governor becomes either the new sitting Governor or the Acting Governor of a state.  The Lieutenant Governor is not unlike that of the Vice President, serving as the chief officer of the state senate, occasionally casting tie-breaking votes.  Unlike the Vice President, the Lieutenant Governor can be elected as a separate constitutional office and frequently represents a different political party than that of the governor; although, in over a dozen states, the Lieutenant Governor is jointly elected with a Governor.  Essentially, vacating the office of governor and the elevation of a lieutenant governor to the governorship would lead to significant changes in policy direction and prioritization

      In many states, the eligibility requirements for governor specify a minimum age of thirty years at the time of election to office, but there are noteworthy exceptions.  Wisconsin’s constitution specifically states that individuals elected to the governorship must simply be qualified electors (18 years old).  Other states such as Arizona, Montana, and Nevada require that an elected governor be at minimum 25 years of age.  Residency requirements prior to election are typically between five and seven years.  Missouri and Oklahoma constitutions require prior state residency of ten years minimum.  Mississippi and New Jersey require 20 years minimum U.S. citizenship. Currently, only about half of the state governors are natives of their respective states.  Of the non-native governors, 34.1 percent were born in the Northeast; six percent were born in the state of New York.  As of 2009, two governors were born outside of the United States.  It is fairly well known that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California was born in Austria; less commonly known, Jennifer Granholm, former Governor of Michigan and current cabinet officer in the Obama administration, was born in Canada.

American Samoa Yes
Baker, Howland and Jarvis Islands No
Guam Yes
Johnson Atoll No
Kingman Reef No
Midway Islands No
Navassa Island No
Northern Marianna Islands Yes
Puerto Rico Yes
Palmyra Atoll No
U.S. Virgin Islands Yes
Wake Island No

Table 7.1 Governors in the Territorial Possessions

7.B.II – Term Limits:

      In the last few decades, term limitation has gained heightened interest among voters.  The executive branch of the national government saw term limitations come into effect in response to President Roosevelt’s unprecedented four consecutive presidential election victories in the 1930s and 1940s.  In the 1994 general election, the Republican candidates for the U.S. Congress made a major push for term limitation, promising to serve only two terms of office if elected.  Incumbency often appeared to be an advantage that was not easily overcome by a challenger4; term limits were seen as a way to offer fresh alternatives a voice in the electoral process. For good or for ill, the message of term limitations resonated with voters.  State governors have by no means been immune to voter scrutiny and to term limitation measures.

      As of 2007, thirty-seven states have enacted term limitations on their governorship.  In some states, terms limits mean that after a governor has served two full terms, he or she must wait four years before being eligible to run again for the governorship.  In Wyoming, an individual can only serve eight years as governor in any sixteen-year period.  In Virginia, the constitution allows the governor to serve only one four year term; the individual then has two wait four years before being eligible to run for a second term.  New Hampshire has a particularly interesting and complex term limitation arrangement with two one-year terms of office followed by a two-year period before the governor is eligible to run for re-election; there are no limits on the number of terms any individual may serve.  In six states, Lieutenant Governors are not subject to the same term limitations as Governors, perhaps in recognition of the lesser importance of the Lieutenant Governorship in the policymaking process; although, the Lieutenant Governor does serves as the President of the state Senate and over a long tenure may gain significant influence over closely contested policy measures.

7.B.III – The Governor’s Office:

      Not unlike the president, the governor’s office is shaped by the incumbents’ personal style and tastes in management.  Personality plays a large role in shaping gubernatorial tastes in the governance process.  Governors have a personal staff appointed by him or her and organized under the managerial control of a chief of staff.   Organization and access of staff to the governor is largely a function of personal management philosophy.  Some governors are very hierarchical in their management style, often using the chief of staff position to limit access of personnel.  In a hierarchical approach, the governor’s interaction with staff is usually formal and quite structured.  Other governors tend to adopt a collegial approach to management.  The role of a chief of staff is more limited.  Collegial governors regularly attend informal policy group meetings where discussion is freer flowing and innovations are discussed in an open forum.

      It is important to realize that while several other elected positions exist within the executive branch — e.g., secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and comptroller (or controller or Auditor).  The sub-governor executive offices are not beholden to the governor; while officeholders might meet regularly with the governor, they do not take their direction from him or her.

      In addition, an agency’s staff exists below the governor’s political appointees and/or below that of other elected state executives.  In theory, bureaucracy is politically neutral, but organizational and individual values and priorities may sub-consciously shape judgment.  The ability of a governor and other political executives may be constrained by bureaucracy.  Administrative reform5 efforts are, in some instances, an attempt to break down the bureaucratic network and reduce red tape.

      As with the president, state governors are generally required to organize and submit an annual or bi-annual budget to the state legislature for consideration.  One of the most recognizable and important staff offices, therefore, is the budget office, headed by a governor appointed budget director.  The budget office interacts regularly with the governor and other members of his or her personal staff along with other elected executive branch officials, such as the treasurer, secretary of state and comptroller (auditor). The budget office is particularly critical when the opposition party controls the state legislature.6  The office serves as an important liaison function in promoting the governor’s agenda.

      Governors often establish policy advisory groups.  Policy groups are often formed around related policy issues, such as crime, education, welfare, transportation, and many others.  A governor’s chief of staff helps the governor to coordinate the activities of the policy groups and to ensure that the governor’s general and specific priorities form the nexus of policy goals.  Governors will meet regularly with their policy advisers and discuss legislative priorities and budgeting.

      In addition to personal staff, governors rely heavily on appointed boards and commissions.  Commissions are often closely tied to specific policy issues in a state and are very important in promoting policy innovations.  In relation to issues of sustainability, state energy commissions, for instance, spend considerable time studying the feasibility of alternative energy development in states.  Education policy functions often have associated boards or commissions with either appointed or elected officials.

      Not unlike the presidency, governors also appoint a cabinet to manage related state administrative departments.  In some states, certain policy areas have elected leadership.  The State of Washington, for instance, has an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction.  California has an elected Labor Commissioner. The presence of other elected executives in specific policy areas serves to limit gubernatorial influence and power.

      Despite a large staff and executive office organization, governors are highly dependent on personal characteristics to shape policy and outcomes.  In essence, the power to persuade the voters and legislators of the importance and necessity of certain policy priorities cannot be underestimated.  Public opinion is a strong influence in shaping a governor’s ability to successfully promote a policy agenda.  Additionally, legislative-gubernatorial relations are oftentimes shaped by party control factors.  In a divided government, the governor may face greater challenges in promoting a policy agenda than in times of unified party control.  With the exception of Nebraska (a unicameral legislature), there is evidence that when the governor’s political party controls the state senate (but not the legislative chamber), then he or she is less limited by the impacts of divided government.

      Public opinion research indicates that the public expects governors to pay close attention to state economic trends.7  When state unemployment rates rise, the governor’s public opinion ratings tend to decline.  Conversely, the public is generally supportive of governor’s who chase smokestacks — that is, successfully pursue economic development in their state; however, public opinion is shaped by the specific type of industrial development pursued.  Increasingly, voters insist on clean industries that will not pollute the environment.

      It is important to remember that all of the actions of the governor are ultimately shaped by his or her partisan leanings and the partisan climate in which he or she operates at the state level.  Beyond the state itself, the governor as a partisan actor, must also work with the state’s elected congressional delegation, which may or may not share the governor’s policy priorities or visions for innovation.8

7.C – Secretary of State

      In the national government, the secretary of state is an appointed cabinet-level position largely associated with diplomatic affairs; but there are many other functions of secretary of state that involve economic development and partnerships.  At the state level, the functions are similar in many respects.  International or interstate “diplomacy” is often seen as limited to officially welcoming heads of state or domestic state dignitaries; but secretaries of state also play an important role in informing these visitors about the business climate in a state and the benefits of locating particular industries there.  In essence, secretaries of state are key economic development coordinators.  The secretaries of state offices in most cases are also responsible for managing business licenses and business development in a state.  Given the office’s responsibilities in business licensing, it is a natural fit for the secretaries of state offices to manage state archives and other official records — in some instances, the department of motor vehicles or its equivalent reports to the secretary of state.

      Perhaps one of the most recognizable functions of the secretary of state, however, is that of managing elections.  The office is responsible for officially posting the names of candidates for public office and closely managing the printing and distributing of ballots.  Following the casting of these ballots, the secretary of state is responsible for certifying that the election has been conducted honestly and accurately.  Many readers will recall Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ controversial decision to certify the 2000 presidential election votes despite widespread concern about the accuracy and completeness in counting punch-card ballots in several Florida counties.

      Every ten years the U.S. Census Bureau requires the redistricting of national, state and local legislative electoral districts to ensure that U.S. citizens enjoy equal political representation.  Secretaries of State, the Governor, and the state legislatures all play key roles in deciding on the shape of the districts resulting from this process of realignment of district lines each decade.  Partisan and racial gerrymandering — i.e., the intentional creation of districts that will likely ensure particular political party victory or the victory of particular candidates who are persons of a particular race or ethnicity — historically has been and remains a highly controversial issue in many parts of the country.  Secretaries of State play a key role in preventing gerrymandering in most states and become involved in perpetuating the practice in a few states.

7.D – Attorney General

      The state attorneys general serve as the chief judicial advocate for their respective states, representing state interests in all trials, investigations, and appeals involving the state as a legal party.  The offices of the attorneys general also have the responsibility of organizing the state’s legal profession to provide legal counsel for individuals who cannot afford to pay for their own legal representation in criminal cases.  The office of the state attorney general is usually divided into separate divisions for criminal and civil matters. Consumer protection is one of the fastest-growing areas of concern among attorneys general working on the civil side, and violence against women, violence against the elderly, and cybercrime (i.e., computer-based victimization through identity theft or stalking) are the most frequent areas of growing attention on the criminal side.  The protection of children is another prominent issue facing attorneys general, on both the civil and criminal side.  The Amber Alert system, designed to rapidly disseminate information about abducted children, is typically put into place by attorneys general working in concert with local law enforcement in their states.

      Attorneys general in some areas have formed close interstate relationships, at times effectively nationalizing legal policy goals.  In the 1990s, state attorneys general pooled their resources and talent and pursued litigation against large tobacco companies.  Ultimately, the “tobacco settlement” resulting from a federal lawsuit brought by a group of state attorneys general led to the periodic payment of literally billions of dollars in revenue to the states as just compensation for the costs to the states for the treatment of illnesses caused by smoking.  In this instance and in others, state attorneys general have demonstrated that their executive powers and abilities extend far beyond state borders, in some respects outpacing the powers of state governors in terms of impact.

7.E – State Treasurer

      State treasurers administer or supervise the financial transactions taking place in state government.  The collection of tax, investment, and transactional revenue is the major feature of the treasurer’s job.  In the area of tax collections, it is the case that tax revenue does not arrive all at once.  State sales taxes, for instance, typically arrive in state coffers monthly from retail merchants who sell taxed goods or services.  Gasoline taxes, for example, are levied on individual purchases and tallied by the familiar gas pumps found in every service station.  A monthly tally is read on each pump and each station operator remits taxes due to the state and federal governments.  State treasurers are responsible for managing such financial resources as they are collected, and they are in charge of distributing those resources to state agencies appropriately – that is, according to statutory formulas set forth in the state budget document.  While the resources are sitting in state coffers — usually state bank accounts in private banks and investment institutions — the treasurer is responsible for the careful investing of these monies to earn interest, or in the case of longer-term investments to earn dividends and/or gain in market value.

      There are many instances where state resources are insufficient to complete budget goals.  State legislatures, with the governor’s approval, will direct the state treasurer to issue bonds.  Bonds are promissory notes, essentially IOUs issued in the name of the state.  Investors purchase a bond for a certain amount when such bond issuances are announced.  On a pre-determined due date (or “call” date), the principal investment, as well as interest earned, are returned to the investor.  External parties rate bonds with expertise in finance in terms of the likelihood of repayment.  The best bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, a major private bond-rating corporation, is AAA.  Bonds receiving a lower rating entail a greater degree of financial risk, but pay a higher rate of interest.  State treasurers actively manage state bond issuances and seek to develop and maintain financial management plans that result in high bond ratings, which save state taxpayers money in interest payments avoided.  State treasurers uniformly across the country keep a careful eye on their state bond ratings and play a key role in maintaining financial management practices in state government.

      In recent years state treasurers have begun to play an ever-larger role in the development of innovative funding programs for state investments in higher education.  As any reader would likely know, the cost of a college education has been rising more quickly than the general cost of living.  Fortunately, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service allows in its Code 529 provision for the development of individually funded tax-exempt college savings accounts.  In order to encourage the continued development of a highly educated labor force, states have joined the federal effort to encourage investment in higher education by also making these plans exempt from state taxation.  The monies invested by individuals in 529 plans are administered by the state in conjunction with a predetermined private investment firm, such as Fidelity Investments.  State treasurers are responsible for the collection of revenues, the investment of those revenues, and the eventual dispersal of these funds to the parents and children for whom these funds have been saved.

      In some states, the state treasurer also plays an important role in state policy innovation by managing grant monies intended to fund novel policy initiatives.  In some cases, state treasurers have solicited proposals for local renewable energy projects, workplace health promotion incentives, and sustainable community development.  The treasurer reviews the proposals and plays a key role in determining which grant proposals will be funded.  The goal of these grant programs is to provide seed funding for ideas that promote the economic viability of the state economy which can be adopted by other localities once the ideas are shown to be worthy of investment.

7.F – Superintendent of Public Instruction

      The famed educator Horace Mann in Massachusetts established the first state-level education office in the 1830s.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, elementary and secondary education was either privately administered or seen as entirely a local government function.  While public K-12 education remains largely locally administered, Mann’s Common School Movement instituted a major state-level role in educational curriculum and organization.  Superintendents of public instruction are elected positions, generally featuring a four-year term of office.  The superintendent’s office has a multitude of functions, with curriculum management being a very important aspect of the superintendent’s job.  While individual school districts have some influence over curriculum issues, the state office plays a key role in determining the curriculum of basic educational requirements — the basic knowledge, skills, and abilities to which all students should have equal access.  The superintendent’s office maintains accountability through student testing.  Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act sent into law in 2001, the state office is also responsible for school performance and teacher quality management issues.  Other important functions are the management of state finances directed towards basic education, and the management of granting programs originating at the state level or filtered through the state office by the federal government.  The superintendent of education and the department offices at the state level play a critical role in managing K-12 education and ensuring the equality of educational opportunity for all students, including the supervision of GED (Graduation Equivalent Degree) programs made available to students who are not able to complete the traditional high school process and the supervision of homeschooling parents.

7.G – Local Government Executives

7.G.I – County Commissions:

      Counties are among the oldest jurisdictions of government.  In Western Europe, counties were units of aristocratic government, the jurisdiction of a Count or an Earl.  In our country, the role of county governments has varied considerably over time, and their relative importance has been a function of the social and economic climate of a region.  Until relatively recently county governments had remained largely unchanged in their structure and method of operation9 often being viewed as institutional anachronisms.  Prior to the nation’s large-scale urbanization, the county was the predominant unit of local government. County government served the blocks of farms and ranches that constituted a region’s economic base.  The industrialization and subsequent urbanization of many areas in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced the power of county commissions considerably.  Communities that remain rural and agricultural continue to employ county commissions carrying out their work in rather traditional ways.

      Typical county functions focused on public health and welfare, education, criminal justice, roads, and property rights issues.  County government often maintained a public hospital and a public health department.  Schools were centrally located in small rural areas, often found in the county seat of government.  The county sheriff’s department and county court system (and jail) were generally highly recognizable features of county government.  Finally, county government focused considerable attention to the issue of water rights and land use — two issues particularly critical in the arid Southwest.

      The primary elected executive leadership in a county is typically the county commission.  In many respects the commission serves a dual role as a legislative body, employing a majority-voting rule to determine county policy priorities.  In fact, county commissions and other political executives at the county level (e.g., Sheriff) are critical actors of directly managing and delegating key functions of local government.   Increasingly, county commissions have appointed county managers, an administrative executive position, to manage the day-to-day operations of counties.  In several counties across the country, generally in large counties with significant urban populations, the office of an elected county supervisor has been created by county charter amendment to fill similar functions.

      County commissions regularly create “special districts” (units with their own limited taxing authority) and elected or administrative executive positions to deal with specific issues.  For instance, the cemetery board in many counties is a creation of the county commission, and the cemetery board executives may be either elected or appointed administrators.  Other commonly recognized special districts created by the county commissions and associated executive elected or appointed executive positions involve county parks, housing authorities, and water boards.

      County government authority is limited in their function by Dillon’s Rule.  Dillon’s Rule is named after John Dillon who was an Iowa Supreme Court jurist in the mid 19th century.  In his book, The Law of Municipal Corporations (originally published in 1873) John Dillon argued that state-national government power relations were embedded in the U.S. Constitution, granting the states almost unlimited authority aside from limitations imposed by the Constitution and resulting federal statute.10  In terms of state-local power relations, Dillon argued that states create local government and hold supreme power over local governments.  The noted exception to this is the creation of home rule relationships in which states effectively grant limited — and reversible —power to local government to independently create governmental forms and manage policy formation at the local level.

      In recent years, county government across the country has been rejuvenated through a large measure of institutional reform.11  Counties play a very important role in coordinating sub-government activities, many of which overlap in jurisdiction.  County government has played a particularly important role in law enforcement, dealing with public health and safety and terrorism-related policies, coordinating multi-jurisdictional efforts to react to changing conditions such as domestic violence and drug-related youth gang violence.  The management of weather-related catastrophe events has also benefited from county government leadership in major ways.  In terms of adaptive innovation, many county governments across the country have taken advantage of the opportunity to bring disparate groups together and to provide for an effective hearing for multiple viewpoints and sharing of common goals.  County land management is one important method of providing an equitable future for all citizens, particularly as county demographics change and as the values of citizens evolve.  In this regard, county governments spearhead some of the most innovative programs in the areas of renewable energy development and broadband access for households across the country.  The national organization, the National Associations of Counties [NACO], is an effective voice for innovation and adaptation to changing societal conditions in the country, and offers technical advise and services to counties seeking to implement “best practices” in the major areas of sustainability promotion – namely, energy conservation, renewal energy development, alternatives to single-occupancy automobile travel to the workplace, greenhouse gas emission reduction, etc.  In recognition of the rejuvenation of county government, in 1991 the ICMA changed its official name from that of the International City Management Association to the International City/County Management Association.  The ICMA conventions and technical assistance programs now feature a rich blend of city and county administrators for virtually all types of jurisdictions, large and small, urban, suburban and rural.  In this type of setting innovative local government practices, which promote sustainability, are effectively disseminated widely throughout the country.

7.H – Special Districts as Quasi-Executive-Legislative Institutions

      Technically, special districts are units of local government that are not a county, township, or city.  The general scope of power and responsibility of a special district is governed by state laws and county ordinances, which provide legal guidelines for the governance and administration of special districts.  Special districts often emerge due to the demands of citizens for certain services in their community, and citizens may petition county governments to create special districts as a way to deal with the problems occasioning their concern.  Special districts are wide-ranging, offering services such as fire protection in rural areas, and water, sewer, and other benefits to individuals within a special district’s taxing jurisdiction.  Through the process of creating a special district, county and state governments structure a system for the collection of additional revenue to be assigned to a dedicated fund needed by the district to provide services demanded.

      Special districts perform the executive role of governing the process of service delivery, but also through governing boards they perform the legislative function of creating policies and regulations related to district and service administration.  Additionally, special districts employ their own administrators to execute district policies.

      Creating sustainable communities will require the active participation of the many special districts that have proliferated at the local level, each one meeting particular needs and overcoming barriers to effective service delivery.  Special district governance and administration is closer to the citizenry than state or national government and may be assumed to be more responsive to local needs.  As such, the people active in the establishment, management, and operation of special districts are frequent participants in contemporary local meetings relating to sustainability.  These people have demonstrated particular skill at local-level adaptation to change in the past, and they will likely be among the leading voices heard regarding policies needed to address the challenges of global climate change and related problems facing our state and local governments in the years ahead.

7.I – Municipal Government

      In municipal government, the most commonly recognized executive position is that of mayor.  In most municipal government structures, the mayor is the elected executive in a city.  The power of a mayor as an executive, however, is oftentimes limited in many of the same ways as other state and local executives — namely, he or she is heavily dependent on a well-defined organizational structure wherein other actors exercise significant influence.  Mayors typically operate within one of three different organizational conditions: strong mayor-council, weak mayor-council, or the commission form of municipal government wherein the role of the mayor is primarily that of coordinator.

7.I.I – Strong mayor-council:

      One of the most significant powers afforded the mayor is that of budget maker. The mayor’s office prepares a budget document that is submitted to the council for review and eventual approval.  While the details of the budget are negotiable in the council’s deliberative process, the mayor’s power and staff support for preparing the budget document provides him or her with significant influence over the budgeting process.  In a strong mayor-council system, the mayor administers the budget after council approval, which is another source of mayoral power; the mayor is typically afforded considerable discretion over when budget expenditures will be deferred or possibly even sequestered or rescinded.

      In strong mayor-council systems, mayors have significant appointment power as well.  The mayor can appoint and dismiss numerous administrative municipal agency heads.  With the legal power to hire or fire, the mayor does not have to negotiate or compromise with agency heads.  As the chief executive in the municipality, in strong mayor-council systems, the mayor’s overall agenda is likely to carry the day in most important matters of municipal policy and programs.

      While the executive powers of mayors in a strong mayor-council system are considerable, there are clear limitations on those powers.  Mayors can be limited by the council, and most certainly the voters hold ultimate control over the mayor’s continuance in office.  Administrative leaders have their own power base as well in the client groups they serve; if the mayor operates with too heavy a hand, then he or she might find himself or herself politically isolated and unable to produce desired outcomes.

      Over the course of the nation’s history, even the strongest mayors have had to employ positive inducements to achieve their goals.  Former Chicago mayor, the late Richard Daley, Sr. who headed a Democratic municipal political machine, found that offering inducements — oftentimes, city jobs for friends or family members of his supporters — was an effective way to build support and to get things accomplished.

      As with other executives, strong mayors are only as strong as their level of public support.  New York City mayor John V. Lindsay (1966-1973) is a good example of how power is relative to political support.  Lindsay came from one of New York City’s oldest patrician families, tracing the family connection to the city back to Dutch rule in the 1660s. A handsome and articulate man, Mayor Lindsay graduated from Yale University and served in Congress during the 1960s.  A moderate Republican, Lindsay was a strong supporter of civil rights.

      New York City elected him mayor in 1966 with the idea that he was a young progressive leader who would do an excellent job in bringing the city into the post-civil rights era, continuing to promote the message of social and political equality.  Instead, Lindsay’s mayoralty was plagued with repeated bouts of civil unrest.  Harlem, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan, witnessed the murder of a police officer responding to a call for service at a local mosque.   The neighborhood almost erupted into a riot when police officers descended on the scene.  Mayor Lindsay was roundly criticized for ineffective leadership.

      In addition to civil unrest, Lindsay called for higher taxes — the highest per capita municipal taxes in the nation; this was a needed but highly unpopular move on his part.  Despite higher taxes to support the mayor’s public works agenda, the transit, sanitation, and other municipal workers went on strike.  Without regularly operating municipal agencies, New York City was often a difficult place to navigate for residents and visitors alike.  The worse problems became, the more difficult it was for Lindsay to lead the city.  He ultimately left office in 1973, almost universally disliked by both political liberals and conservatives.

      One of the most recent examples of how political support can catapult a mayor’s popularity also comes from New York City.  On September 11, 2001, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was only weeks away from retiring from a successful two terms in office, having brought down crime levels in the city to record lows.  On that fateful September morning, however, his leadership was challenged by the worst terrorist act on U.S. soil in history, when two commercial airplanes were intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center towers located in Lower Manhattan.  While the details of that day are well-known, Mayor Giuliani’s leadership over the crisis was a sterling example of how a strong mayor system can lead to highly successful outcomes when timely and dramatic action is required.  In the weeks and months following the terrorist attack, New Yorkers and the U.S. public-at-large nearly universally supported his leadership — he was often referred to as “America’s Mayor” as a consequence of his accomplishments.

7.I.II – Weak mayor-council:

      In a general sense, the concept of weak mayor-council government is nearly self-explanatory.  In the weak mayor-council form of government, the mayoralty is largely a ceremonial position.  Unlike the strong mayor-council system, executive leadership entails a cooperative effort on the part of the entire city council.  The council collectively decides and approves appointments.  The budget is a collegial endeavor and the mayor is just one of the council members involved in the budgeting process.

      A weakened mayoral position is often associated with reducing the potential for political corruption and misuse of power.  By dividing power and responsibility among all council members, it is believed that corruption and misuse of power will be limited. Additionally, a weak mayor-council arrangement melds legislative and executive authority.  All council members play both legislative and executive roles.  Collectively, their leadership traits might produce better outcomes.  In the modern city, it may be almost too much to ask one individual to handle all major events—therefore, a cooperative council arrangement could reduce the stress often placed upon a single individual in a strong mayor-council system.  Conversely, a weak mayor-council government might reduce the ability to assign responsibility.  As small sign on President Harry S. Truman’s Oval Office desk stated, “The Buck Stops Here.”  In the case of a divided executive, it is unclear where the buck stops — no particular individual is solely responsible for decisions or outcomes.

7.I.III – Municipal commission government:

      Progressive Era reformers heavily promoted the commission form of municipal government.  The first use of this form of government occurred in Galveston, Texas in 1900.  A city approximately 360 miles west of New Orleans along the Texas coast, Galveston had been hit by a severe hurricane.  Over 6,000 residents died as a result of the severe storm.  It has been estimated at over $17 million (nearly $400 million in current dollars) in property damage occurred.  A large percentage of the storm’s survivors left the city and moved elsewhere.

      The city government divided the responsibilities of the municipality among council members.  Each commissioner held executive power over a major public works department (e.g., water, sanitation, and roads).  By dividing the executive responsibilities, the city’s commissioners were able to accomplish Herculean tasks in their own areas of responsibility.  Collectively, commissioners served in a legislative role, determining budgets, voting on policy directions, and approving appointments or dismissals. The mayor, a highly ceremonial figure, was selected either through a vote of the commission as a whole or by general election.

      While the details of municipal commissions are discussed elsewhere in the text, the executive power elements of commission government are highly illuminating.  By dividing the executive power of commissioners along the lines of public works functions, budget debates were more likely to stake the interest of one public work against others.  With a largely ceremonial mayoral function and at-large nonpartisan commissioner selection processes, the commission form of government selected individuals based on experience within a public works area with a sense of its relative importance in relation to other public works functions.  Outside of emergency situations, the commission form of government can be highly contentious despite its non-partisan membership.  A divided executive, the commission model of municipal governance may reduce the capacity of government to promote cooperative decision-making, which may be more common in the council-manager forms of government.

7.I.IV – City managers as executives:

      During the Progressive Era, municipal government moved away from strong mayoral control over the executive aspects of governance.  City managers — an appointed executive — became a more common feature in municipal executive leadership.  As with county manager developments, Progressive Era reforms leading to the creation of city managers were driven by the desire to professionalize the executive aspects of governance as well as address substantiated and unsubstantiated concerns about the presence of political corruption in local government.  It was commonly thought that an appointed manager, serving in an executive/administrative role, would be less likely to engage in corrupt or dishonest dealings than would persons beholden to partisan political interests.

       The city manager as a municipal executive position has proven to be a popular form of municipal government, despite the fact that it is a challenging governmental structure.  As a non-elected position, the city manager often possesses administrative values that undergird his or her approach to executive leadership.  Many city managers hold advanced university degrees or have rich experience in urban planning, public administration, and public policy.  First and foremost, they are policy and administration experts.  Elected council members and the mayor, however, are motivated to a major extent by the electoral process and are quite properly sensitive to changes in the city’s political climate. While city managers may arrive at effective and efficient solutions to a municipality’s problems, voters may not find those solutions palatable.  The result is that council members often dismiss city managers as a politically expedient solution to voter disapproval.  The city manager’s executive power is only as strong as their level of support from their council.  As an executive role, therefore, the city manager concept may be highly effective in the complex world of municipal governance, but the position is often constrained by the shifting fortunes of council members responding to their respective political environments.

      Some research has shown that policy and budgeting processes can differ greatly depending on the type of municipal executive system in place.  For example, one study found that strong mayor systems have more informal and flexible decision-making processes for capital expenditures (e.g., roads, sewers, water) based on a “case by case” approach, compared to a more formal process with many specifications characterizing city-manager systems.12

7.J – Executives and the Core Dimensions of Sustainability

      State and local government executives play an important role in promoting the core dimensions of sustainability.  Investment in human capital is important to all political executives discussed in the chapter.  Governors are often key proponents of high-quality K-12 and higher education, as are state superintendents of public instruction.  State Treasurers have an important role as well, managing burgeoning 529 (or pre-paid college tuition) plans intended to broaden admission to higher education and make it a long-term affordable goal for young people in various states, cities, and rural areas.  Labor commissioners, secretaries of state, city council members, and city managers have a vested interest in building human and social capital.  Investments in the building of human capital often reinforce efforts to promote social capital — a societal resource that promotes the coproduction of public goods through the coordinated efforts of individuals.

      Sustained state- and local-level investment in human capital will directly impact efforts to promote the development of a sustainable economic base featuring an educated and adaptive workforce capable of adapting to an ever-changing global marketplace.   Political executives at the state and local level invest significant portions of their time in creating public laws that will encourage certain types of low environmental impact economic growth, particularly growth that advances the goals of ecological sustainability and which will attract and retain a highly trained workforce.  Secretaries of state and labor commissioners, for instance, spend considerable time crafting policies designed to attract sustainable business ventures while simultaneously ensuring that workers operate in productive and safe work environments.  Governors often use their visibility to travel to other regions of the country or even to other nations to discuss the benefits of business location in their state and local areas.  Businesses are often reticent to relocate to a place, which cannot offer long-term opportunity, and as a consequence, the issue of sustainability often becomes an important drawing card.  At the same time, states and local areas that demonstrate a strong desire to pursue clean industries that do not damage local resources may put potential new industries on notice — namely, we care deeply about how we live.  Local government executives, those most familiar with the needs of local communities and the special resources of an area, are often in the best position to balance the needs of economic development with the long term goals of communities in preserving that which makes a special place in the world so very special.

      Those distinctive qualities of a state or a local area often connect up strongly with environmental quality issues.  While federal environmental laws have held significant sway in protecting endangered species and ameliorating the effects of environment damage of the past, state and local executives play a prominent role in upholding federal standards.  Local land use permitting policies, for instance, can have a tremendous impact on native fish and wildlife species, and on land and water resources.    City councils and county commissioners, as well as a host of public agencies, are virtually always the virtual “first line of defense” in protecting and maintaining the environmental goals of sustainable governance.

      Local executives serve the institutional goals of sustainability through an emphasis on equitable development plans that reduce resource impacts through reduced urban sprawl.  In the past, planning and zoning have been used for the nefarious purpose of de facto discrimination, excluding certain races and ethnicities from living in certain areas.  While federal, state and local laws long ago moved away from these earlier and dismal times, the core principles of sustainability offer a further reminder that state and local executives must be ever-vigilant to policies that have the effect of excluding individuals from equal and broad participation in social, economic, and political life.


Executives – What Can I do?


Find out more about state governors by visiting the National Governors’ Association (NGA) website at:  and their “Inside the Governors Office” Website to learn about how governors operate on a daily basis.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) has a lot of information concerning voting and elections, including a “Can I Vote” link that provides information concerning each states’ voter rules and procedures: Visit the site and see what rules there are for your state concerning absentee ballots, early voting, and where ballot boxes are located.

Visit the City Mayor’s Website to learn about how mayors across the world serve as executives:

The National Association of Counties is an excellent source of information for county government.  Visit their Website at: and link to the “Learn About Counties” page and take one of their “Test Your Knowledge” quizzes about county government.

7.K – Executives and Sustainability

      State and local executives can play an important role in promoting sustainability in their jurisdictions.  For example, they can suggest and support legislation, issue executive orders, use their powers of suasion as leaders, and establish various advisory boards, commissions, task forces and working groups intended to promote sustainability. Some recent examples of executive efforts at the state and local levels of government include the following.

      In 2000 then-Governor Gray Davis issued Executive Order D-16-00 that established a sustainable building policy to:13

Site, design, deconstruct, construct, renovate, operate, and maintain State buildings that are models of energy, water, and materials efficiency; while providing healthy, productive, and comfortable indoor environments and long-term benefits to Californians.

      Similarly, in 2001 Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber supported and signed into law the Oregon Sustainability Act which represented a statewide comprehensive plan to pursue sustainability in all facets of government, including the following goals:14

Key Takeaways

In supporting sustainable communities, state agencies shall seek to enable and encourage local communities to achieve the following objectives:

  • Resilient local economies that provide a diversity of economic opportunities for all citizens.
  • Workers supported by lifelong education to ensure a globally competitive workforce.
  • An independent and productive citizenry.
  • Youth supported by strong families and communities.
  • Downtowns and main street communities that are active and vital.
  • Development that wisely and efficiently uses infrastructure investments and natural resources.
  • Affordable housing available for citizens in community centers.
  • Healthy urban and rural watersheds, including habitats for fish and wildlife.
  • Clean and sufficient water for all uses.
  • Efficient use and reuse of resources and minimization of harmful emissions to the environment.

           At the municipal level, perhaps one of the most well-known efforts to promote environmental sustainability concerning climate change and the emissions of greenhouse gasses is Seattle, Washington’s Mayor Greg Nickels’ effort to establish the Seattle Climate Action Plan.15  The goal of this initiative is “not only to inform but also to inspire individuals and organizations — both within and outside City government — to take actions that help make Seattle a model of healthy, ecologically sustainable urban living.”16  Mayor Nickels has broadened this effort into a national movement called the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.17 The goal of the agreement was to get 141 cities to attempt to “meet or beat” the international Kyoto Protocol that set limits on greenhouse emissions.  While the U.S. Government has not ratified the protocol, as of November 2009 over 1000 mayors have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.  The agreement calls for participating cities to:18

Key Takeaways

  • Strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities, through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land-use policies to urban forest restoration projects to public information campaigns;
  • Urge their state governments, and the federal government, to enact policies and programs to meet or beat the greenhouse gas emission reduction target suggested for the United States in the Kyoto Protocol — 7% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012; and
  • Urge the U.S. Congress to pass the bipartisan greenhouse gas reduction legislation, which would establish a national emission trading system.

7.L – Conclusion

      Executive leadership serves a very important function in U.S. state and local government.  Governors, executive staff and boards, county commissions, mayors and many other executives are the sources of much innovative leadership and policy innovation.   Executive functions are either appointed or elected and are either collegial or hierarchical.  In all executive positions, there are at least two common dilemmas to be considered.  First, expectations of executives generally require a well-developed staff and a strong network of relationships with other executives operating at the national, state, and local level.  In other words, executive leadership is highly dependent on support systems to accomplish innovative goals.  Second, successful executive leadership is dependent on the ability of leaders to gain the support of others.  Elected executives find that they must gain public support in order to accomplish their most important goals, including those of the effective promotion of sustainability.  Executives must lead others, convincing both everyday citizens and other elected and appointed officials that a particular direction in governing will lead to sustainable and desirable outcomes.  Finally, executives must have a clear sense of the power they exercise over the institutions they represent and the influence that comes from the development of strong connections between national, state, and local governments.  When these assets of executive leadership, organizational power, and network-based influence are directed toward the promotion of sustainability in a state, county or city government, remarkable outcomes can be the result.  The 1,000+ mayors and county commissioners who have signed on to the Climate Protection Agreement initiative are representative of this potential for positive change.


Commission Government
Dillon’s Rule
Home Rule
Strong Mayor-Council
Weak Mayor-Council


Discussion Questions

1. As Table 7.1 illustrates, there is much variation between states in terms of qualifications to be governor.  While some states allow 18 year olds to run for office (e.g., California), many other states set the minimum age at 30 years (e.g., Florida).  Similarly, there are many differences in residency and citizenship.  What do you think should be minimal qualifications for governor, and why?


2. How about the structure of municipal executives — can you think of the benefits and costs of weak versus strong mayor systems?  How about the city manager form of government — what benefits and costs does this form of executive have in comparison to mayoral systems?


3. Who are the various prominent state executive branch leaders and what function do they serve in state governments?


1. D. Coffey, “Measuring Gubernatorial Ideology: A Content Analysis of State of the State Speeches,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 5(2005): 88-103.

2. J. Barth, and M. Ferguson, “The Relationship between Gubernatorial Personality and Public Approval,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 2(2002): 268-282.

3. See R.C. Turner, “The Political Economy of Gubernatorial Smokestack Chasing: Bad Policy and Bad Politics?” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 3(2003): 270-293.

4. J.D. King, “Incumbent Popularity and Vote Choice in Gubernatorial Elections,” The Journal of Politics 63 2001): 585-597.

5. R.S. Kravchuk, “The ‘New Connecticut:’ Lowell Weicker and the Process of Administrative Reform,” Public Administration Review 53(1993): 329-339.

6. W. Clarke, “Budget Requests and Agency Head Selection Methods,” Political Research Quarterly 50(1997): 301-316.

W. Clarke, “Divided Government and Budget Conflict in the U.S. States,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 23(1998): 5-22.

S.M. Morehouse, “Legislative Party Voting for the Governor’s Program,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 21(1996): 359-381.

7. S.B. Hansen, “Life is Not Fair: Governors’ Job Performance Ratings and State Economies,” Political Research Quarterly 52(1999): 167-188.

8. J. Soss, and D.T. Cannon, “Partisan Divisions and Voting Decisions: U.S. Senators, Governors, and the Rise of Divided Federal Government,” Political Research Quarterly 48(1995): 253-274.

9. C.T. Stearns, “A Historical Analysis of the American County Institution and Reform: Values and the Case of the Appointed County Executive,” Administrative Theory and Praxis 23(2001): 279-284.

see also A.W. Bromage, American County Government (New York:  Sears Publishing Company, 1934).

10. J. Dillon, The Law of Municipal Corporations (Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

11. C.T. Stearns, 2001, op. cit. (see reference 9).

12. S. Nunn, “Urban Infrastructure Policies and Capital Spending in City Manager and Strong Mayor Cities,” The American Review of Public Administration 26 (1996), 93-112.

13. G. Davis, Sustainable Building Task Force, Executive Order D-16-00. URL:

14. Oregon Sustainability Act, (Available at:

15. Seattle Climate Action Plan. URL:

16. Ibid.

17. U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. URL: /agreement.htm

18. Ibid.


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State and Local Government and Politics Copyright © 2018 by Christopher A. Simon, Brent S. Steel & Nicholas P. Lovrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.