Local Government Authority

Local government officials, whether elected or appointed, have very little individual authority, despite having responsibility for large amounts of money and many important community services.  Citizens give authority to a city council to make decisions that would be difficult for a group of hundreds or thousands of people to decide.  The form of this delegation of authority is a city charter that spells out the rules for officials in a document that can only be changed by a majority of voters in an election.

Local officials are also constrained by federal and state laws that either direct them to do certain things or limit what they can do.  The idea is that the higher levels of government see the bigger picture while local people know the most about individual communities.  Dumping untreated waste in a river, for example, might not have an immediate effect on the place doing the dumping, but the impact downstream will be very different. 

Most local governments fully understand that their authority comes from the people they serve and that it has many limitations.  Very few Oregon cities have full-time paid elected officials, so there is really no incentive for councils like Albany’s to test the limits of what they can do or keep things from citizens.  This system of local government has evolved over the past 50 years or so and has served Oregonians well.  Citizens have many tools, including regular elections, initiatives, and referenda, to insure that local governments are responsive to their needs.

While there are many restrictions on the powers of local government, there is a need for someone or some group to be responsible for the property, equipment, operations, and services of a city.  Most of that burden is assigned to full-time employees whose primary job is to carry out policies and projects in accordance with the decisions of elected officials.  Most mayors and councilors don’t respond to robberies, drive fire trucks, or otherwise directly involve themselves in city operations.  Similarly, there are restrictions on the use of city property and equipment to make sure they are used appropriately.  No single person in the city, whether elected, appointed, or private citizens, has the authority to determine who can use every piece of equipment or facility.  Usually these determinations are made by the council or through policies governed by federal or state law.

I think too many people believe that “The City” is an independent business or organization that acts in its own interest, rather than the people who are elected and hired by the public to do things collectively that cannot or should not be done by individuals.  The easy way to find out would be to attend one or more of the 275+ public meetings conducted by the City every year or talk with some very accessible city council members or drop by City Hall to visit with the Mayor or City Manager.