The Evolution of County Government Structure: A seven part series

Part six in our seven part series from The Florida County Government Guide: Evolution of County Government Structure in Florida will focus on assessing the various types of county government.   

Part 6 in a 7 part series

Three Forms of County Government

There are three basic forms of county government in use in Florida. The traditional commission form, the commission-administrator or manager form, and the commission or council-executive form. These forms are also typically found in most counties across the country. The primary difference between these three forms is who is responsible for implementing policy. In the commission form, policy implementation is handled by the board of commissioners. However in the commission-administrator or manager form an administrator or manager appointed by the commission oversees implementation of policy. And in the commission-executive form an elected executive (typically a mayor) oversees policy implementation. In all three forms a board of county commissioners meets and makes policy for the county. In addition, regardless of government form, almost all counties have five other county officers that are popularly elected by county voters. These constitutional officers perform a variety of administrative duties and policy functions for the state and county.

Assessing Forms of Government

All three basic forms of county government can work effectively. However, each is designed for a certain type of county. The primary factor in having a good fit between the county and the form of government is population size. Table 2.4 shows the average population size of the counties that have each form of government. The ten non-charter counties with commission forms of government average a little less than 19,000 people. The 54 counties that have county-manager or administrator forms of government average a little over 260,000. And the three charter counties that have adopted an executive form of government average almost 1.5 million people.

There is logic to this self-sorting. The traditional county commission structure was designed for small rural counties with fairly homogenous population. Citizen expectations for services are fairly low and political conflict is rare. County commissioners can handle both making and overseeing policy and many key state functions are handled by the separately elected constitutional officers.


Table 2.4. Form of Government by Average County Population (2009).

Form of Government

Average County Population

Commission

18,969

Manager/Administrator

260,723

Executive

1,493,914

Source: Data collected by author.

           

            However, as the population grows and becomes more diverse, more political conflict is bound to occur and citizens begin to expect more services. Having the county commission make and implement policy becomes difficult and inefficient—and violates the cherished political doctrine of separation of powers inherent in national and state government. Thus counties begin to gravitate towards the county manager or administrator form of government to allow a professional administrator to oversee day to day operations of county government and allow the commission to focus on making policy.

            Finally, as the county grows even larger and more diverse there is a need for political leadership and an elected executive. Political disagreements between diverse factions can best be overcome by strong political leadership, something a manager or administrator is ill-equipped to provide and legally cannot provide. Executive mayors that are forced to campaign, talk to voters, lay out plans for the future, and help work out compromises that various factions can live with help make large urban counties function.

This concludes part six of a seven part series on the structure of county government in Florida. If you would like more information on the assessment of county government forms or on the distinct types of county government please, reference or purchase the Florida County Government Guide

The series began with: Part 1. The Evolution of County Government (link to previous article) Part 2: Charter & Non-Charter Counties; Part 3. Forms of County Government: Commission Form; 4. Forms of County Government: Administrator or Manager Form; and, Part 5. Forms of County Government: Executive Form.  The final article in our series will look at:  7. Commission District Structures.

If you find this series informative, it is excerpts from the Florida County Government Guide. The Florida County Government Guide is a comprehensive reference on all aspects of Florida county government.  The Guide includes information on Florida’s history, the structure of county government, leadership and management, budgeting methods and strategies, economic development opportunities, growth management, human resources, emergency management, purchasing and contracting, health and safety, infrastructure and more.  To purchase your copy of the Florida County Government Guide, please click here.