Local Government Final Ethnography

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According to Gledhill (1994), the field of political anthropology, in seeking to relate the local to the global, must include a better understanding of the dynamics of political organization and power in Western societies. When we relate the local to the global, it is important to understand local power. Local government is the smallest and closest form of government to the individual. It “directly impact the daily lives of their residents” (Urban, 2017) as it is specifically catered to the group of individuals it represents.

Local officials represent their constituents through many different forms of government, the most popular being council-manager, followed by mayor-council, commission, town meeting, and representative town meeting according to the National League of Cities (n.d.). The two most popular (council-manager and mayor-council) make up 89% of local governments. The form chosen to study in this Ethnography is mayor-council. There are two types of mayor-council governments, strong-mayor and weak-mayor. These names are given to reference the amount of power a mayor has.

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Strong-mayor has been chosen for this study. The objective of the study is to identify the power structure of the strong-mayor, Mayor-Council form of local government, to look at how power is acquired and distributed, and compare the Mayor-Council form to local governments of Western Europe.


The research for this study was gathered through the use of participant observation and literature research. The researcher gathered information over the duration of 5 years while attending council meetings in the town of Delano, Minnesota and working for the town of Delano as well.

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The reason for choosing a strong-mayor, mayor-council government is because Delano uses a strong- mayor, mayor-Council form of local government. Literature research was reviewed online.


The Mayor-Council form of local government functions in three levels. The first level, or the base, is the citizens represented by the local government. The next level is the commissions made up of volunteers of local business owners, city workers and citizens. The final level is the city council and the mayor who are elected by the citizens. How it works is, a citizen comes to the city with a proposal. That proposal is then given to the relevant commission to pass on, tweak, or deny. If passed on, the council listens to the proposal at the next city council meeting. Anyone can attend a city council meeting, whereas commission meetings are not public. The proposal can pass in one of two ways. Either the council passes the proposal or the mayor overrides the council. The proposal can also fail in one of two ways, the council denies the proposal or the mayor vetoes it. To see this in action, we can take an example from the town of Delano. In Delano, specifically a couple of neighborhoods, there is a lack of stop signs. Due to the lack of stop signs, it has causes numerous problems with cars exceeding the speed limit and has caused injuries to pedestrians. Because of the pedestrian injuries, a few citizens wanted to see more stop signs installed. These citizens drew up a proposal on where to install more stop signs and then brought their proposal to the city. This proposal was first discussed within a small commission, Public Works, as they would be the ones that would be installing the signs. Public Works decided the proposal had merit to be discussed by the city council and the mayor. The citizens then presented their proposal to the council and mayor at the following council meeting. The proposal was not passed by the council and the mayor did not use his veto power to override their vote. Vary rarely does the mayor go against the city council or vice versa though.

The mayor is the clear leader of the local-government. Delano employs a strong-mayor. A strong-mayor has centralizing executing power, directs the administrative structure, and has veto power over the council (NLC, n.d.). The mayor does not have legislative power though. That is given to the council. There are checks and balances in the strong-mayor mayor-council form like seen in the federal government. The mayor must be elected by the citizens he/she will serve. The mayor serves a four-year term and can be reelected as many times as they would like (City of Delano, n.d.). City councilmen also must be elected by the citizens he/she will serve. Council members serve a four-year term and may be elected as many times as they would like (City of Delano, n.d.). Elections of councilmembers and the mayor are staggered by two years. Two councilmembers and the mayor are up for election in the same year and then two years later, the two remaining councilmember spots are up for election.

Usually mayors and councilmembers have no authority to punish individuals. They usually defer that power to the police departments, sheriff departments, and the courts. In Delano, that power is deferred to the Wright County Sheriff and the courts that govern Wright County and the State of Minnesota. It is common for small towns to defer to the County for judicial powers as it is not feasible to pay for a police department.

As for rules, local governments comply with state and federal laws. Some may have their own, more strict laws or have laws for things that the state and federal government have left to the local level. In Delano there is City Codes and Ordinances citizens must follow in order to live there.


Local government in the Anglo-American culture can be compared to the local governments of England. Size of their governing bodies is the first difference that shows up. An English district, borough, or unitary authority (English equivalent of our local government) are very large. They have “an average population of nearly 130,000” (Hulst, 2005) and range from 34,222 to 1,124,529 citizens (LGiU, n.d.). Because of the size of these local governments, it eliminates the need for a regional government like we see in the US in our state level government. If we had the local government system England employs, instead of states we would have roughly 2,505 districts and we would no longer have local governments. In a sense, they are a middle ground between our local and state level governments. Each type of English local government is responsible for different things. Most of the larger local governments are boroughs, followed by unitary authorities and then districts are the smallest forms of local government. These local governments are governed in the form of councils. Councils are made up of Councillors and officers. Councillors are elected “for a fixed term of four years, unless elected at a by-election in which case the time will be shorter (LGiU, n.d.). Officers are permanent positions that usually oversee the duties of the Council. There are four different ways in which a Councillor can see represent its citizens. The first is full council, which is when all elected councillors meet. The responsibility of the full council is to decide policies from the committees. Full council is what we would compare to a city council meeting in the local government in Delano. Committees in the English council made of councillors that “monitor and review the council’s performance and decision-making process in order to ensure it is accountable to the public” (LGiU, n.d.). Then there is the cabinet which is made by “the political party that has most elected representatives in full council” and “it is the only group which is allowed to make decisions on certain areas of policy without the approval of the full council” (LGiU, n.d.). Some councils do not have cabinets. Councils also have a leader or an elected mayor like the US local government mayor-council system. This mayor or leader resides over many more people than a usual local mayor would, but only is there to monitor the performance of the council. They have much less power than mayors seen in the United States. The lack of executive power in the local governments of England reflects their beliefs on a country-level government. Officers are usually not seen in the local government systems of the US.

It is hard to tell how well the English system of local government would work in America mostly due to the differences in sizes. Like stated earlier, the local governments of England only serve a range of 32,444 to 1,254,529 in comparison to the US which serves anywhere from maybe 30 people (a very small town) to a city like New York City with over 8 million people. We see full-fledged political campaigns for some very large local governments in the US due to the size of some cities.

With a relatively weak mayor that only deals with the council, local government in England has a relatively weak level of executive power (Politics.co.uk, n.d.) in contrast to Delano, Minnesota, whose mayor has complete executive power and council that has legislative powers. When these governments are related to the global power structure, we can see a trend on how the United States interacts with other countries. The United States is known to be aggressive when resolving problems, which reflects the United States cultural value of having a level of executive power. What that tells us is that the United States feels the need to step into certain situations before consulting. This differs from England as we can see that they would rather gather a consensus before consulting. After looking at these two governments, these local governments reflect global power dynamics.

A few weaknesses should be discussed that were found throughout the duration of the study. The first being the problem of small-town politics. Because Delano is only just over 5,000 citizens, most of the citizens know or know of each other. The formation of cliques begins, and the most powerfully cliques are the people that have lived in Delano the longest. These cliques interject themselves into local government and use the power of their family history in Delano to enforce their agendas. Some of the time they speak for the majority of Delano, sometimes they do not. If this study was done in a larger city, this would not be as much of a problem as many more people have a voice. Another problem that could cause errors is that this study was conducted in only one town. To get an accurate study, towns and cities that vary in size should be studied from both the United States and England. The duration of this study can also lead to error. Participant observation was done only on one mayor, to get an accurate study, many mayors over time should be observed. Finally, the observer knew many of the commission members, council members and the mayor of Delano as the observer had met most of them outside of a professional setting.


Based on the study, the conclusion that can be made about Anglo-American local government structure is that it is divided into three levels: citizens, commissions, city council/mayor. Each level has some power over the other. Citizens have the right to choose their mayor and city councilmembers. Commissions have the power to decide what to act on. The city council/mayor can deny proposals. As for the duration they have their power, the citizens have power as long as they live in Delano. The commissions have power during the duration of the issues they act upon. The mayor and councilmembers have power if they want if they get reelected. None of the three levels has power to punish an individual though.

When compared to the local government structure of England, we see some similarities and some differences. The local governments of England serve on average 130,000 people and a range of 34 thousand to just over a million. In the United States we see a wider range as our local governments serve the smallest towns to the biggest cities. Both countries rely on a city council and mayor. The mayor in American local government is selected by the citizens though. The mayor of English local governments is an elected councillor that is selected by the councillors. English mayors do not have executive power, they are there to monitor the council.

The differing local government structures shows us how the Unites States and England act on a global level. In the United States, citizens prefer an executive power that can make decisions based on the executive’s knowledge. In England, the citizens prefer to discuss amongst themselves before entering any sort of conflict. We see this in America’s aggressive foreign policy in comparison to England’s more meticulous foreign policy.

It would be interesting to see how the local government has changed over time. To observe how long has the mayor-council method been used and to see how powerful it once was and compare it to the power it holds now and to compare it to past foreign local governments.


  • City of Delano. (n.d.). City Codes and Ordinances. Retrieved from http://www.delano.mn.us/city-services/city-codes-and-ordinances
  • City of Delano. (n.d.). Councilmember Stolfa. Retrieved from http://www.delano.mn.us/city-services/city-council/council-member-stolfa
  • City of Delano. (n.d.). Mayor Graunke. Retrieved from http://www.delano.mn.us/city-services/city-council/mayor
  • Gledhill, J. (200). Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from http://voidnetwork.gr/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Power-And-Its-Disguises-Anthropological-Perspectives-on-Politics-by-John_Gledhill.pdf
  • Hulst, R. (2005). Regional Governance in Unitary States: Lessons from the Netherlands in Comparative Perspective. Local Government Studies, 31(1), 99-120. Retrieved July 5, 2018, https://research.vu.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/2069306
  • LGiU. (n.d.). Local Government Facts and Figures. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from https://www.lgiu.org.uk/local-government-facts-and-figures/
  • Local government structure. (2012, July 11). Retrieved from http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/local-government-structure
  • NLC National League of Cities. (n.d.). Forms of Municipal Government. Retrieved from https://www.nlc.org/forms-of-municipal-government
  • NLC National League of Cities. (n.d.). Mayoral Powers. Retrieved from https://www.nlc.org/mayoral-powers
  • Urban, M. (2017). Training Needs and Computing Uses of Local Officials in West Virginia. doi:10.18411/d-2016-154
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
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Local Government Final Ethnography. (2021, Oct 12). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/local-government-final-ethnography-essay

Local Government Final Ethnography essay
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