Municipal government in the USA

Guest-Opinionby WD Buckley
Town Clerk
The name USA is appropriate because the country is a union of sovereign states. The sovereignty of the state is central to the relationship to the federal and municipal government.
All states are signatories of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees certain citizens’ rights and governs the relationship of the state to the federal government. It includes checks and balances that apply at all levels of government.
The federal government has only those powers expressly given by the state in the U.S. Constitution. This is reaffirmed in the tenth amendment, which states:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Municipal government power comes from the state constitution. Municipalities have no inherent powers. There are two broad constitutional limits that determine municipal powers.
The first is:
“Municipalities have only those powers expressly conferred by general statutes or by special act”
Powers have to be specifically granted by statute. If they are not permitted then they are forbidden.
The second is:
“Municipalities cannot enact ordinances contrary to public policy of state as declared in state legislation”
The fact that a Town Meeting approves an ordinance does not make it effective if it exceeds the authority granted by state statute.
The statutes authorize a Town Meeting as the municipal legislature, certain elected and appointed officials, and boards and committees, all with defined powers and responsibilities. They report to the electorate and not to each other.
The president does not report to Congress or vice versa; the governor does not report to the legislature or vice versa. Similarly, at the municipal level elected officials, boards and committees do not report to each other. They report to the electorate. This separation of powers is deliberate to prevent one person accumulating power and establishing an autocracy.
In order for government to function they must develop working relationships. This differs from the corporate world, where the chief executive is omnipotent. This appears to be the source of increasing tension in Easton for the last five years. However, the town clerk is required to treat everybody equally, according to the statutes, regardless of politics or position.
A municipality cannot change the responsibilities or duties of statutorily authorized positions, or create new positions, by ordinance or any other action. The Town Meeting, as the municipal legislature, does not have the power to make these changes either. Boards and committees cannot use their powers to change those of elected officials. The municipality can hire employees to assist elected officials perform their duties, but their role is strictly administrative. Elected officials cannot abdicate, or be required to abdicate, their duties or responsibilities to them, or anybody else. Responsibility and authority are inseparable and are fundamental to democratic government.
This is a very high standard for municipal government to follow. It requires communication with, and participation by, an informed electorate. Recent events indicate that both are missing in Easton today. Consequently, government has become dysfunctional and in need of reform. Future ClerkTalks will deal with some of the consequences.

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