What do an ancient tribe, a band of settlers, and a neighborhood watch have in common?

Local governments are formed by who people who have chosen to unite to protect their individual freedoms of life, liberty, and property.  Whether a tribe in an ancient land, a band of settlers on the American frontier in the 1800’s, or a group of neighbors forming a neighborhood watch group in an existing community, local government has been practiced in groups that want to govern themselves to be something more than just a bunch of random individuals living in the same area.

A natural extension…

Local government is a natural extension of self government.  When governing ourselves, we recognize natural laws that govern our interactions with others.  Individuals who have a common understanding of these natural laws tend to have more success in forming a community and protecting everyone in that community's freedom.  Natural laws, be they the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi’s Code, or what have you, are a foundation that allows individuals who have an understanding and acceptance of these laws to be able to build a set of guidelines that govern their interactions.

A statement of purpose…

Most groups that decide to form a community start out with a statement of their purpose, then add rules that they all agree to live by.  This is especially helpful with a group of people who have differing motives, as in the case of the Mayflower landing in the wrong place (Plymouth instead of Virginia).  Arriving on the Mayflower were two groups of individuals.  The Separatists, who called themselves Saints, were fleeing from religious persecution while the adventurers and tradesmen on board were looking to build wealth in a community that was already established.  Both groups knew they would need to preserve freedom to accomplish their goals.

The actual compact is composed of three small paragraphs, followed by the signatures of all 41 men on board. 

  • The compact stated their joint purposes of advancement of the Christian faith and the honor of their King and country. 
  • The compact was a covenant, a solemn promise, that the group would combine to support this joint effort and could enact laws and elect leaders. 
  • The compact, the founding document, wasn’t the laws and leadership.  It was the agreement to build laws, choose leaders, and to do what was necessary to benefit the people as a whole by submitting to and obeying those laws and leaders.

Plymouth eventually became a settlement that others looked to as a model for creating a successful community in the New World.

A common form: The City Council

Based on a desire to form a community, the people of that community set up laws to govern themselves and put leaders in place to administer those laws.  One common form of local government is the City Council form.  A mayor and a number of councilmen are chosen by the townspeople in an election.

  • The mayor is the executive, he executes or carries out the law.  He is also leadership for meetings and in disasters or other emergencies. 
  • The council legislates or makes laws and ordinances that tell how the town should be run: traffic laws, rules for order, collecting fees and paying for services, etc.  The council works in concert with the mayor, but they have separate functions.
  • A judge is charged with upholding the laws of the community by determining when they have been broken and what the stated punishment is.  Her office is separate from the Mayor and City Council and she is chosen for appointment by a commission.  The citizens choose to retain or not retain a judge by voting.  Her appointment to this office is an effort to avoid having judges campaign to be elected by the people.

Read, know, and understand your municipal code

These laws and ordinances are written down as the municipal code.  It is an excellent practice for citizens to read, know, and understand the municipal code for the town or city they live in.  It’s always easier to live, work, and play by the rules when you know what they are! 

That being said, very few people have actually taken the time to learn the rules in their town unless they find they have broken one.  You might even be surprised at some of the laws you read.  My town at one point had a law requiring that all cats be on a leash when they were outside.  Sound absurd?  That’s what everyone thought after the law was made.  After jokes and ribbing from citizens, as well as from others in surrounding communities, the law was rescinded, largely because it was unenforceable.

Each community’s laws are different and laws will also vary from state to state. I challenge you to read your community’s laws and understand them.

People from the community who take an oath to serve the community…

Council meetings are where the business of the city takes place and where the laws are enacted.  Court proceedings are where a judge determines if laws have been broken.  Both of these meetings are open to the public.  Mayors, councilmen, and judges are positions held by people from the community who take an oath to serve the community.  Each of these promises to listen to community members and work for them to achieve the most good.  They are accountable to you, a member of the community.  

You, with others, can vote them out of office if you don’t like how they have performed.  Between elections, however, you can have a conversation with them to better understand the issues and see their point of view, as well as share your own.  We choose these local leaders to make the final decision on an issue after hearing from everyone in the community.  It’s important that you take part by sharing your point of view.  The bulk of the work in a community is done between the elections in the day to day activities of the community.  You can be a part of this to help preserve freedom in your community.  You should be a part of this!

Take the Challenge: Attend a council meeting.  Look to see who holds power there, who people are listening to.  Watch how they deal with people and what items they discuss.  Also, take time to find and read your town’s governing document.  This will probably be found on the internet, but if not, there will be a copy in your town hall for public reference.