State Policy Network

SPN Local Government Working Group

Local Government Working Group Mission

To pursue initiatives that increase individual liberties, government transparency, and resilient budgeting practices in cities and municipalities across the country.

Guiding Principles for Local Government Leadership

The role of local governments in relation to state governments

Local governments are to protect individual liberty and uphold equal justice under the law. State governments ought to preempt local governments to protect constitutional rights and may preempt local governments to clarify constitutional rights. Within the American system of government, states should prefer local authority unless there is a compelling reason, such as local laws harming desirable and practical statewide uniformity or creating undue havoc in travel or commerce.

How local governments should serve citizens

Local government should respect individual rights. Local governments should be transparent (in their deliberations and actions), participatory (providing opportunities for meaningful citizen involvement), and inclusive (taking into account the interests, needs, and rights of all citizens). Local governments should not compete with or displace community and voluntary associations; rather, they should defer to the people of that community and the associations and institutions they form.

Nature of local governments and their delegated powers

Communities arise from the actions of a diverse collection of interests and powers—individual citizens, voluntary associations and nonprofit organizations, corporations, and a variety of city and county governmental agencies—each facing different rules and incentives. Although each makes decisions separately, a coherent whole emerges with strong similarities to other communities. State legislatures have the authority to set or alter the rights and responsibilities of local governments. States set the rules for incorporation of new local governments. With that said, where power resides and where authority is best exercised for the well-being of citizens are different matters. Because citizen referenda can have the same force as legislation, it is simplest and most appropriate to judge them according to the same standards by which we propose judging decisions by elected and appointed officials.

Administration of core services

Local government should engage in responsible and resilient budgeting that is transparent, independent (i.e., not beholden to federal grants), and based on long-term revenues. Local governments should budget based on the specific priorities identified in their charter, code, or both. Local governments should incur debt only when absolutely necessary and use conservative assumptions when projecting cash flows. Local officials should refuse grants from any source that forces them to adopt policies that exceed the scope of their authority or are contrary to their citizens’ preferences. Local governments should only regulate within their proper scope of authority, including the boundaries of their charters or state code. In all actions, cities should strive to address truly public problems, rather than serving narrow interests, and should defer wherever possible to private solutions and respect private property rights.

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How to Build Affordable, Thriving Neighborhoods

A State and Local Zoning Reform Toolkit

Americans thrive when they live in safe, affordable, and healthy neighborhoods that they are proud to call home. We can build these types of communities by removing the obstacles that arise from zoning.

This toolkit for state and local zoning reform provides a menu of more than 50 reform options, ranging from small regulatory adjustments to broad institutional reforms. The toolkit also outlines six strategies to accomplish zoning reform in your city.

Download this resource.