Decentralization, Autonomy, Accountability, and Local Governance in Dalton, Muskegon, Michigan, USA

A functioning society requires decision making structures and feedback mechanisms allowing for corrections. Local autonomy allows for the application of local knowledge (Hayek, 1945), and accountability supports corrections in structure and process. This paper will look at these terms and concepts, the hierarchical structure of government in the United States using a specific municipality as an example, mechanisms of accountability, issues confronting local governance, and how participatory democracy might be enhanced by decentralization with increased local autonomy and accountability.

Decision making authority is of vital importance for all organizations, especially governments. A basic division can be made between two competing philosophical approaches to the problem. “Centralists generally believe that national political leaders and administrators know best how to provide security, promote economic growth, and maintain political stability. Those who argue for decentralization generally tend to have a more populist view. They tend to believe that the best public policies come from wide participation in public affairs and from local knowledge about how best to solve problems and meet the needs of citizens.” (Cheema and Rondinelli, 2007, page ix). If centralization is seen as being too intensive in a given society, decentralization can be a solution. Decentralization can be defined as, “…the transfer of authority, responsibility, and resources—through deconcentration, delegation, or devolution—from the center to lower levels of administration.” (Cheema and Rondinelli, 2007, page 1). 

Governmental autonomy can be defined by two factors: initiation and immunity. "...the power of initiation is the power to regulate private individuals." and "The power of immunity is essentially the power of localities to act without fear of the oversight authority of higher tiers of the state." (Clark, 1984, page 198). Accountability has three directions of influence. Up, as a local municipality can be accountable to a larger government. Down, as a government can be accountable to its constituents. Across, as a government can be accountable to other departments, councils, boards, etc. at the same level. (Romeo, 2012, page 8).

The United States is composed of a literal federation of united states. The United States Constitution mentions both enumerated rights and enumerated powers. These are most notable and recognizable in the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. For instance, the 8th amendment specifically states the enumerated rights of not having excessive bail or fines, nor having cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. This was specifically written to protect individuals from the national government directly. In the 10th amendment it is expressly stated that the powers not delegated to the national government are reserved for the states or the people. This has changed significantly since the founding of the US (Barnett and Gerken, 2016), with the demarcation between federal and state powers changing and blurring. For instance, the 14th amendment was ratified in 1868. Prior to that the Bill of Rights only applied to the national government, not to the state governments. Afterward, the Bill of Rights applies to both levels of government.

Michigan is one of the 50 states that currently make the United States. Internally it has a similar structure to the national government in that there is a governor that is the head of the executive branch, a bicameral legislature made up of a directly elected senate and house of representatives, and  a state supreme court as the head of the judicial branch. Within Michigan there are counties. Counties have an elected board of commissioners, along with directly elected positions such as the clerk, treasurer, sheriff, and prosecutor. Within counties there are cities, townships, and villages. Each is structured slightly differently. The case we are looking at is Dalton Township. This is a general law township within Muskegon County with a population of approximately 9,400 people. There is a village contained within the township comprising about 1,300 of the 9,400 residents.

The municipalities within the states are given their rights, powers, authorities, initiative, immunity, and duties by the state. Also, the union of the states formed the national government, so in the United States it can be argued that the primary unit of government, and the one with the most theoretical authority, is the states. In practice things are less clear. As an example let’s look at zoning laws that restrict land use. Cities in the United States started to pass zoning laws in the early 1900s. The Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover before he became President created a standard enabling act for the states to follow. Zoning falls under the police powers of the states. The enabling acts specifically give the state police power over land use restrictions to the local municipalities. The standard act designed by Hoover and associates heavily emphasizes that the states should pass what the national government is recommending without almost any changes, or it is suggested they could put themselves into legal trouble. (Advisory Committee on Zoning, 1926). Michigan passed a city and village zoning act in 1921, and acts for counties and townships in 1943. Dalton Township adopted zoning ordinances in the 1950s.

Such a structure therefore appears to be one of decentralization, but the appearance is somewhat deceptive at each level. When the US Constitution was originally designed the state house of representatives chose the national senators to represent the state. This gave the national senate an incentive to work on behalf of states’ rights. With the national senate having a large veto power, this helped prevent the encroachment of national governmental powers and growth beyond the enumerated powers of the Constitution. However, in 1913 the 17th amendment was ratified that changed the national senators to a direct election, thus removing the influence of the states at the national level. We can see the power of this type of influence in the zoning enabling acts, wherein the national government is able to strongly suggest passing laws as they have written them, even though the powers are supposed to be state powers.

We also see this appearance of decentralization between the state and the local municipalities. Since the power for zoning comes through an enabling act, all that is needed for powers to be taken away or granted to the local municipalities is a statute passed by state congress. Since the state congress considers changes to laws on an almost daily basis it is always a dynamic situation. When the state passes a rule on zoning that would otherwise be a decision allowed to the local government this is called local preemption. A popular example of local preemption in Michigan is the Right to Farm (RTF) Act. There are a set of guidelines developed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) called the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs) that include things like setbacks and the Generally Accepted Processing Practices (GAPPs), which if followed are supposed to allow a certain level of protection from nuisance complaints. Instead of the state enabling the local governments the state instead enables the state level department. Things recently under discussion by the state congress in Michigan for local preemption are sand mining and short term rentals.

Both the national and state level governments limit the autonomy of local governments fiscally. For instance, in 2021 53 percent of Dalton Township’s budget came through state revenue sharing. Also, through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 Dalton Township will receive over 800,000 dollars over the next few years. With the township being so dependent on larger governments for revenue this significantly reduces income autonomy. These funds are restricted by the controlling entity, most notably the ARPA funds were passed at the federal level for political reasons, with the rules around them changing significantly over several months as the rules were made up. Therefore expense autonomy is also greatly effected. (Dafflon and Madies, 2009, pages 40-46).

There are a number of mechanisms by which citizens can hold governments to account for their decisions and actions. On an individual basis lawsuits in both criminal and civil court can be brought against politicians and administrators. In the United States, this is a common practice. Elections are of course another common and well known mechanism by which people can choose to have new politicians in office. Freedom of the press and of speech as recognized in the 1st amendment of the Bill of Rights are important, and play a significant role in both elections and court cases.

Slightly less well-known are the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA). These are both laws in Michigan and have their parallels in national law. FOIA allows people to request information from the government. The government must give the information within a certain amount of time. The OMA has rules about meetings being open to the public, that notices have to be published and posted for meetings, public comment in meetings, that meeting minutes have to be available within a certain amount of time after meetings, and that meetings can be recorded. Both of these add significantly to government transparency and the ability of average citizens to hold the government accountable by having access to information.

From my personal experience and observation it’s clear that the ability to hold the government accountable is dramatically different at different levels. At the level of the village, township, city, and county it’s very possible for the average citizen to be able to get involved, to use FOIA requests and the OMA to get access to information, to make public comment, promote things in the press, file lawsuits and court cases, to promote elections, and even to run in elections. As you move higher in the government system these things become more logistically difficult and more resource prohibitive. The state is still at a level that can be interacted with and influenced by the average citizen with a large amount of effort. However, in the United States, the average citizen would struggle even being able to talk to their national congress people, much less to have any chance at influencing a law, policy, or decision. Therefore, even though the local municipalities are limited in autonomy, they have been delegated power by the state government, and they are the level at which true accountability can be achieved in governance.

The most powerful way in which people can interact with the government is to take an active role. There are opportunities for this. For instance, in Dalton Township there are seven elected positions on the board, there are seven people appointed to the Planning Commission, five appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals, three to the Board of Review for tax exemptions, and there are various election workers. Each of these roles has a function to fulfill, and more importantly than that it gives an opportunity for people to develop greater understanding of the system, structure, and processes. Then, if there is a need and desire, moving to a higher level of influence becomes more achievable and accessible.

As of now there are no clear paths to protect democratic local governance beyond what currently exists. The states will continue to lack a proper check on the power of the national government. The states will continue to have arbitrary power concerning things like zoning, and thus local preemption will continue to be debated when it is politically or otherwise advantageous to the congress.

Local accountability, below the level of the state, being in a strong position, the primary concern then is with the enhancement of local autonomy. Some possible options here are clear. The 17th amendment could be repealed thereby restoring the national senate to the control of the state legislatures and adding a check upon national power to protect states’ rights. This, however, is unlikely to happen because there are no obvious stakeholders interested in taking up such a cause, and the problem seems largely missed by the general public in the United States. For local municipalities, instead of operating from enabling acts the powers and authorities of the local municipalities could be codified within the state constitution. This may help the local governments to function less as part of the administrative state for the state and national governments and more autonomously. So too could the tax formation be reconfigured so that property taxes were the primary source of revenue, and therefore most revenue would have to travel through the local municipalities to get to the state with the local municipalities directly keeping their larger portion, rather than relying on state revenue sharing and the grant based culture that has grown at the state and national levels with heavy dependence on the larger governments. This too seems unlikely due to similar issues.

The United States has a large and complex structure of government. There is a strong appearance of decentralization, and some reality to it as well. However, the national and state governments exert an inordinate amount of power when they so choose. The local governments being the accessible level of participatory democracy within the society, and where the mechanisms for accountability are most effective, it would do the society well to bring enhanced autonomy to the more local units. This presents great challenges, and also opportunity.

Reference List

Advisory Committee on Zoning (1926) A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. Department of Commerce.

Barnett, Randy E. and Gerken, Heather (July 6, 2016) Article I, Section 8: Federalism and the overall scope of federal power. Accessed on 16 May 2022 at

Cheema GS & DA Rondinelli (Eds.) (2007) Decentralizing Governance: Emerging Concepts and Practices. Washington DC: Brooking Institution Press.

Clark, G. L., 1984, ‘A Theory of Local Autonomy’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 74(2), pp. 195−208

Dafflon B & T Madiès (2009) Decentralization: A Few Principles from the Theory of Fiscal Federalism. Research Department Notes and documents, No. 42. Paris: AFD (Agence Française de Développement).

Freedom of Information Act, Act 442 of 1976

Hayek, Friedrich (September 1945). "The Use of Knowledge in Society". The American Economic Review. 35 (4): 519–530.

Michigan Right to Farm Act, Act 93 of 1981

Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, Act 110 of 2006

Open Meetings Act, Act 267 of 1976

Romeo, Leonardo (2012) Decentralizing for Development: The Developmental Potential of Local Autonomy and the Limits of Politics-driven Decentralisation Reforms. Working Paper, No. 11. Visby, Sweden: ICLD, Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy.

Rondinelli, Dennis A., “Government Decentralization in Comparative Perspective: Theory and Practice in Developing Countries,” International Review of Administrative Sciences 47(1981): 133–45

The United States Constitution

United States Census accessed 17 May 2022 at



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