State and Local Government

 

Initially dealt with through particular actions, over time local governments came to be the subject of general law, and achieved some capacity to govern themselves. The state constitution was not amended to include home rule for cities until 1924.[1] The current Home Rule provisions in the constitution’s Article IX were adopted by amendment in 1963.  According the a recently-published, authoritative annotated version of the NYS constitution, grants of power to and restrictions on general purpose local government in the state constitution now fall into four categories: 1) directly specified areas of autonomy for localities; 2) directly specified restrictions on local government action; 3) directions to the state legislature to empower local governments; and 4) restrictions on the state legislature’s actions regarding local government.[2]  Reformers continue to be concerned on the one hand with the insufficiency of local autonomy under the state constitution and on the other with barriers in the constitution to rationalizing local government structures and reallocating powers among localities to reflect the realities of 21st century life in New York.


[1] Revisiting City Charters In New York State: James A. Coon Local Government Technical Series. 1998. http://www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Revising_City_Charters.pdf

[2] . Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bopst (eds.). The New York State Constitution, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) p. 267.

 

Local government in New York, and its relationship to the State, has evolved over centuries.  The forms and functions of general purpose local governments within the State of New York reflect the colonial heritage of the State. In many ways the county, town, village, and city system we employ can be seen as an 18th Century paradigm.  The earliest form of local government in what was to become New York was the system of “patroonships” where Dutch settlers would swear an oath of fealty to “Patroons” who held the land, and were expected to populate it with settlers.  In 1653, the first “modern” local government in the colonies was founded as the city New Amsterdam, which would later become New York City under British rule.

 

In 1683, and under British rule, the Charter of Liberties and Privileges was passed.  Based loosely on the Magna Carta, it outlined the principles by which the colony would be governed, and split New Netherlands into 12 parts, giving birth to the county system which is still in use today.  In 1703, the position of Town Supervisor was created to distribute the costs of County government amongst the towns.  In 1777, before the American Revolution, the first New York State Constitution was enacted, recognizing counties, towns, and cities as the units of local government. In specific, the 1777 New York Constitution recognized the colonial charters of both New York, and the city of Albany.  It also directed the legislature to “arrange for the organization of cities and incorporated villages and to limit their power of taxation, assessment, borrowing and involvement in debt”.   In the 1790’s villages began to emerge as a local government structure, by granting rights and privileges to unincorporated hamlets.[1]

 

In general local governments emerged as “creatures of the state.” Counties and towns were formed at state initiative to meet basic service needs in to rural areas.  Villages and cities offering more extensive services were established in response to local request to meet the needs of more densely populated place. Sepecial purpose governments – most especially school districts – began to emerge in the mid-19th century. The idea that general purpose localities would be governed by elected officials and would exercise a degree of autonomy from the state evolved over the 19th century.  The battle for “home rule”- greater local autonomy - first focused during the 19th century on cities. It was very much centered on partisan battles between upstate-based Republicans and downstate Democrats for to control the patronage and wealth available in New York City.

 

Initially dealt with through particular actions, over time local governments came to be the subject of general law, and achieved some capacity to govern themselves. The state constitution was not amended to include home rule for cities until 1924.[2] The current Home Rule provisions in the constitution’s Article IX were adopted by amendment in 1963.  According the a recently-published, authoritative annotated version of the NYS constitution, grants of power to and restrictions on general purpose local government in the state constitution now fall into four categories: 1) directly specified areas of autonomy for localities; 2) directly specified restrictions on local government action; 3) directions to the state legislature to empower local governments; and 4) restrictions on the state legislature’s actions regarding local government.[3]  Reformers continue to be concerned on the one hand with the insufficiency of local autonomy under the state constitution and on the other with barriers in the constitution to rationalizing local government structures and reallocating powers among localities to reflect the realities of 21st century life in New York.

 

 


[1] New York State Department of State Local Government Handbook, 6th Edition. 2009. http://www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Local_Government_Handbook.pdf

[2] Revisiting City Charters In New York State: James A. Coon Local Government Technical Series. 1998. http://www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Revising_City_Charters.pdf

[3] . Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bopst (eds.). The New York State Constitution, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) p. 267.

 

 

 

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