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Jul 2015

Local Government 101: Other Town Government Forms

in Educational /

Ask most people to identify the forms of local government and they will usually say mayor-council (strong-mayor) and council-manager.  Every once in a while someone will pipe up and mention commission, but usually they live in a small town that has that government structure. Actually, there are  three other  forms of local government that can be found in small towns: commission, town meeting, and representative town meeting.

Each of the three minor forms of government has distinct defining characteristics. Each of these structures speaks to towns with smaller populations. They could not function effectively in larger cities so it is easy to draw a line between these three and the two more common government types.

Commission Form of Government Defined

Image courtesy of ndstudies.org

Image courtesy of ndstudies.org

This is the oldest government structure in the United States. However, today it can be found in less than 1 percent of cities nationwide and those cities typically have populations that fall below 100,000. Fairview, Tennessee and Sunrise, Florida are two cities that use this form of government.

Under this government, individual commissioners are elected by voters. Those commissioners make up the governing board and one is designated as mayor or chairman. This official presides over the meetings. Each elected commissioner is assigned the responsibility of one section of the social infrastructure of the city, including public works, fiancé, police, health, and fire. It functions both on the executive and legislative levels.

Town Meeting Form of Government Defined

town-meeting-votesThis form of government, practiced by just 5 percent of United States municipalities. It is, however, considered to be democracy in its purest form. This is because it give a voice to all eligible voters on decisions regarding local policy. Marblehead, Massachusetts uses the town meeting form of government.

Voters elect officials who then carry out policies that the voters decide. It is a form of government where the voter truly participates in their government.

Representative Town Meeting Form of Government Defined

Image courtesy westport-news.com

Image courtesy westport-news.com

This is a rare form of U.S. government, less than 1 percent of cities use it. It is almost exclusively confined to small municipalities in New England including Lexington, Massachusetts and Bowdoin, Maine.

Voters choose a group of citizens who act as representatives at the town meeting. These representatives, or selectmen, are the only ones who are able to vote on issues and assume the responsibility of policy implementation. When a town meeting is planned, a warrant announces it and includes the date, time, and meeting location as well as an agenda of items that will be voted on and discussed.


Jul 2015

Five Things Local Governments and Elected Officials Can Take Away from the Supreme Court Signage Ruling

in Topics /

A case was brought against the Town of Gilbert, Arizona after their code enforcement issued two citations against the Clyde Reed and the Good News Community Church for leaving their directional signs out more than one hour past the end of service.   This case made its way through the Federal Court System and eventually to the Supreme Court.   On June 18th, they issued a ruling on ‘REED ET AL. v. TOWN OF GILBERT, ARIZONA, ET AL. ‘.

While the Town argued that the ordinances were not content based as their codes were based on the purpose of the sign (election signs, directional signs, ideological signs among a total of 23 categories of temporary signage) instead of specific message.  The Supreme Court decided that purpose is in itself a type of communications.  As written in the majority opinion:

We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny.

On its face, the Sign Code is a content-based regulation of speech. We thus have no need to consider the government’s justifications or purposes for enacting the Code to determine whether it is subject to strict scrutiny.

So, what does that mean for you local government?

1 Don’t Panic

No, your business district isn’t going to suddenly turn into Las Vegas Boulevard.  The ruling doesn’t mean that local governments can’t have any rules, only that the rules can’t be different based on the sign’s purpose.  You can still differentiate based on construction, materials, dimensions, if it’s temporary, and anything else that doesn’t require what’s on the sign to be taken into consideration.

2 Most Signs Won’t be Affected

In general, most signage laws are concerned with format (dimensions, maintenance, illumination).  Since these laws do not differentiate on content, they will likely stay in place.

3 Review Your Existing Codes

If you look at your signage laws and look for areas that specify content, such as :

  • ‘Political Campaign Signs’
  • ‘Real Estate Signs’
  • ‘Directional Signs’

Most content-specific laws focus around temporary signs, like those you may use on the road side to give directions or a street sign you may put out on the sidewalk to display your lunch specials, so take a careful look in there.

4 Craft Replacement Codes

Many of these laws won’t withstand a challenge so go ahead and work with your planning and codes enforcement departments and boards, as well as your state and national associations, to identify and replace them with language that meets your community’s needs.  Justice Alitos’ concurring opinion gives examples of where your community may still regulate signage independent of the sign’s content:

  • These rules may distinguish between freestanding signs and those attached to buildings.
  • Rules distinguishing between lighted and unlighted signs.
  • Rules distinguishing between signs with fixed messages and electronic signs with messages that change.
  • Rules that distinguish between the placement of signs on private and public property.
  • Rules distinguishing between the placement of signs on commercial and residential property.
  • Rules distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs.
  • Rules restricting the total number of signs allowed per mile of roadway.
  • Rules imposing time restrictions on signs advertising a one-time event.
  • Rules of this nature do not discriminate based on topic or subject and are akin to rules restricting the times within which oral speech or music is allowed.*

In addition to regulating signs put up by private actors, government entities may also erect their own signs consistent with the principles that allow governmental speech. See Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460, 467–469 (2009). They may put up all manner of signs to promote safety, as well as directional signs and signs pointing out historic sites and scenic spots. Properly understood, today’s decision will not prevent cities from regulating signs in a way that fully protects public safety and serves legitimate esthetic objectives

By crafting a law that differentiates on construction (plastic corrugated material and wire stand), dimensions (less than 4′ x 5′) and installation (not secured with concrete) instead of purpose, many of the same goals of duration and density may be achieved.  Density could also be allowed to increase during election times (x weeks before or after an election day designated by the state or county board of elections), or designated high-density zones on public property or right of way could be defined as places where extra signage may be placed in high-visibility areas.

5 Be Patient

Savvy business owners are going to take this opportunity to stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable over the next few months while you get new ordinances into place.  Accept this window as a by-product of the democratic process and focus on getting your new laws in place.  You can also use this as an opportunity to catalog what examples of signage you’d like to prevent in the future and see if you can craft the your next version to be able to take those into account.


While we’re pretty amazing, we’re not lawyers, so we aren’t giving you legal advice, just our editorial opinion.  Want legal opinion?  Ask a lawyer…or a judge… or your friend’s uncle’s lawyer.. just not us.

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Jul 2015

Can Municipalities Tackle Gun Control?

in Topics /

South Carolina State Flag with 9 DovesThe recent brutal shooting deaths of nine people who were participating in Bible study in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, has brought to light the way many states and municipalities manage their gun control laws. Mass shootings grab the nation’s attention, sparking discussion and debate about gun laws. This tragedy was no different; it has reopened the controversy surrounding the issue of citizens having the ability to carry firearms in places of worship. It also places a great burden on states and municipalities to protect their citizens. This is no easy task.

Each state is responsible for creating and enforcing its own laws regarding gun control and ownership, including regulations regarding concealing and carrying weapons.

Our government is structured in such a way that most power falls to the states, and this includes the writing and passage of gun laws. Each state is responsible for creating and enforcing its own laws regarding gun control and ownership, including regulations regarding concealing and carrying weapons. Some states hand over a portion, if not all, of this authority to municipalities, allowing them to craft their own gun laws in accordance with the needs and concerns of the local populace.

Handing over some degree of power to local governments enables states to deal with gun-related crime by permitting the passage of stronger laws in certain areas as opposed to having blanket laws statewide that may not speak to individual areas’ unique issues. A review of gun laws by state (source: NRA-ILA) reveals that several states hand off some degree of lawmaking power to their local governments whereas other states restrict or prohibit local input.


GunLawScoreCard.com ranks states based on their gun laws. The results show that most of the states with strong gun laws allow local authorities to have some degree of control. The theory in play here is that local governments tend know their populations better than those at the state level and are most knowledgeable about what areas are at risk, the demographics of their populations, and what local people will respond to in terms of laws, regulations and authority.

Local governments tend know their populations better than those at the state level

Returning to the recent tragedy in South Carolina, how does that state fit into this paradigm? In South Carolina, the state is the only level of government permitted to create laws pertaining to guns. According to S.C. Code Ann. § 23-31-510, “No governing body of any county, municipality, or other political subdivision in the State may enact or promulgate any regulation or ordinance that regulates or attempts to regulate: (1) the transfer, ownership, possession, carrying, or transportation of firearms, ammunition, components of firearms, or any combination of these things; or (2) a landowner discharging a firearm on the landowner’s property to protect the landowner’s family, employees, the general public, or the landowner’s property….”.  However, there seem to be practical exceptions to this law, such as when a prohibition is included in an emergency ordinance.  The City of Columbia enacted an emergency ordinance when the flag was taken down at the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, prohibiting “…Weapons within a two hundred fifty (250’) foot area..” that was not contested.  In other states, like Pennsylvania, cities have enacted laws around stolen weapons but the legality of those ordinances in the face of state laws are unsure .

Could local governments in South Carolina and elsewhere effectively create laws to better manage areas with higher crime rates? More to the point, could local governments do a better job of creating laws that would be more applicable to their citizens and better ensure their safety, especially when it comes to carrying firearms into a place of worship?

Update: July 21, 10:40 a.m.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has deemed the City of Columbia’s emergency ordinance to be unconstitutional.  The ban, Wilson said, violates a law protected by both SC state law as well as the Second Amendment.  According to Wilson, local government is restricted from controlling firearms, per state statute.

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