Power Struggle: Are Cities Losing Authority to Sts? Survey Gathers Perceptions of Local Govt Actors

How has the balance of state and local power shifted in the past decade? Has the discretionary authority and power of local governments diminished? These are the questions that government scholars Ann Bowman of Texas A&M and Richard Kearney of North Carolina State sought to understand and they are set to publish their results in an upcoming issue of Urban Affairs Review. For answers, the researchers went straight to the source by surveying well-placed actors who are in a position to know how the legal or structural power possessed by cities and counties has changed. Bowman and Kearney surveyed the following: state legislators (21 in all), city managers (234), executive directors of state municipal leagues (21), and executive directors of county associations (17).

So what was the overall conclusion? Their assessment found that local jurisdictions, especially cities, have experienced an erosion of authority at the hands of their state governments. This certainly would come as no surprise to cities here in California, particularly in light of the dissolution of redevelopment.

The survey results show that legislators were out of touch with the opinions of City Managers when it came to believing local authority had declined and that state mandates had a negative impact by stifling city government. Overall, state legislators felt mandates had a positive impact while CMs said that mandates related to financial administrations, education, and land use could hardly be seen as positive from the local level. With respect to this topic, Executive directors of county associations sided with City Managers.

The Atlantic summarizes the results of one notable question: “The first question focused on ‘devolution,’ or how much responsibility had shifted from the state to the local level. The responses across five domains — personnel, finance, service provision, administrative authority, and home rule — failed to suggest even a moderate level of devolution during the past decade. The dispersion among all four groups was low, suggesting a relative consensus that power had failed to transfer downward.”

And the chutzpah of one notable survey result may make you laugh, when you consider the reckless budget fiasco California legislators continually find themselves in: “38 percent of state legislators identified ‘lack of trust in local officials’ as a major reason why more power hadn't shifted. The reality is that poll after poll shows voters are far more inclined to trust their local governments, especially here in the Golden State. It’s state government that is lacking in the trust quotient.

According to Bowman, the start of the new decade could bring a change in the power balance because early analysis of new laws shows local government may experience more empowerment, with Bowman stating “It's just one slice in time. But we did find a slight trend in 2011 toward empowering local government — freeing them up to make those decisions." Time will tell.

Tips, Opinions and Feedback

Have feedback, comments or a opinion piece you'd like to submit?

Get in touch with us and see our opinion guidelines here