County Government in America
Counties in the United States can trace their ancestry to England in the Dark Ages when the king’s authority was exercised, on a local basis, by English shires. Eventually shires came to be governed by a man called the “shire-reeve,” a title which came to be shortened over the years to the term “sheriff.” When the Normans conquered England in 1066, their French background was unfamiliar with the shire system and they replaced shires with a term that was more familiar—“county.” In France, a county was ruled over by a count, a position which never made the transition across the English Channel.
With the discovery and colonization of America, English settlers brought with them many aspects of government they were familiar with but, as this was a new land of opportunity, they soon modified and changed it into something of their own.
America’s first county government was created in 1634 at James City, Virginia. Most colonists took to this form of local government and so it wasn’t long before the Commonwealth of Virginia had expanded to eight counties, and many others came later during the colonial period.
Also during this period, there began to be a growing curiosity in terms of local government attitudes. In the southern colonies, such as Virginia, borders were regarded more openly. Residents were allowed more opportunity to expand and reach further outward. In the North, however, proximity was a more tightly controlled issue, thus fostering an attitude of cities being the choice for government.
As the West opened up in the years that followed, county government became an important step in establishing order to a region. Cities had their place, once an area became more populated, but counties were kept as a means of controlling the outer regions with some jurisdictional laws.
Up until the early 1800s most county leaders were appointed. It wasn’t until 1816 that the Indiana state constitution introduced the election of a wide variety of county leaders as a statute. This included commissioners, clerks, coroners, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other
officers. Soon after, many other states also adopted this concept.
The dual role of functioning as a local government and as an appendage of the state continued, without a specific definition of powers until the middle of the 19th Century. Several court decisions clarified this, and much of it is still in effect to this day. The most important case is found in Iowa in 1868, Merriam v. Moody’s Executors. Justice John F. Dillon believed that counties did not possess any authority, even if the state constitution said otherwise.
Later dubbed “Dillon’s Rule,” counties needed specific state legislation to be granted authority over anything and even then had to make a special appeal to the legislature, who had the final say.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Dillon’s Rule was well rooted as basic law for county governments, and counties across the country accepted it. Some bolstered this law based on the attitude of some critics that counties were weak and corrupt as depicted by H.S. Gilbertson’s, 1917 work entitled, The County: The “Dark Continent” of American Politics.
A reform movement also ensued in the early 1900s, with an agenda including fewer officials being elected (more appointed), a new and separate level of administration created at the county level (county manager or administrator), compensation by salary (as opposed to being tied to fee collection), more professionalism, and home rule defined below.
This reformation secured many significant victories. For example, in 1927 Iredell County, North Carolina, became the first to create a county administrator position. By the mid-19th century nearly all counties had moved away from fee collections as a means of compensation.
The most important change for counties was the concept of home rule. Generally, this meant that state legislatures gave counties broad and general authority whereby they could function as units of local government. In 1911 California was the first state to go in this direction, and in 1913 Los Angeles County adopted the first home rule charter in America.
This was not a sweeping movement, however. Many felt that counties would develop a misguided autonomy. But, in time and with the transportation revolution, people began moving away from the cities and thus the demand for better roads and more services outside the city boundaries was ever increasing. Cities were more in the mode of improving what they had rather than expansion. This left an opportunity for counties to flourish as commuting became a new way of life.
Today, counties enjoy an important relevance to America’s society as they put forth great energy to plan and foresee the needs of future generations. Issues such as roads, water, disposal, natural resources, public lands, and a myriad of quality of life services have become some of the dominant issues counties are faced with in the new century.
As much has changed, one thing remains the same: county government is close to its people and an important resource for citizens to control the quality and sustainability of their lives.