Municipalities in the US can:

  • Make laws that apply to all people who find themselves within their boundaries.

  • Tax residents.

  • Tax economic activity (e.g. sales).

  • Arrest people and apply other police powers.

Where do municipalities get the authority to make all of these impositions on people? Can an individual buy up a parcel of land, declare it to be a municipality, make arbitrary laws, and use armed police to enforce those laws? Clearly not, but why not?

  • 2
    I'm pretty sure this depends on which state you're in. Someone I know was involved in a legal matter in which he thought of arguing that municipalities in Minnesota have only the powers that the legislature has granted them. Elsewhere I've read that there's theory that local government is a natural right with which no one (thus no legislature) has a right to interfere. And a friend of mine told me that in Illinois certain powers and duties of county governments are written into the state's constitution, so the legislature can't change those. Aug 26, 2016 at 18:14
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    @MichaelHardy: "I've read that there's theory that local government is a natural right with which no one (thus no legislature) has a right to interfere" -- well that's going to bounce off theories about any other unit being sovereign (the individual, the state, the people of the nation, the Emperor Norton). Can't all be right. Any bets that the ones who advance the theory are the ones who'd most benefit from sovereignty lying at a local level ;-) Aug 26, 2016 at 19:00
  • @SteveJessop : That theory was named after somebody, and if I could remember the name I'd have more information. More later, maybe..... Aug 26, 2016 at 19:34
  • @Michael Dillon's Rule is the rule that local governments only have those powers specifically given to them by the state, and that the state legislature may modify it at will. The Cooley Doctrine (also called home rule) is the rule that there's a right to local government. As a federal constitutional matter, Dillon's Rule is correct. States may adopt home rule as a basic right in their state constitutions, but even then the state constitution can (in all 50 states, I think) be amended without consent of cities (whereas the US Constitution can only be amended if 3/4 of states ratify).
    – cpast
    Aug 27, 2016 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


A common phrase regarding US cities is, "cities are creatures of the state." All of their authority comes from the authority granted states, and states can limit the authority of cities, counties and their other political subdivisions. In the US cities cannot have additional authority beyond the authority the containing state has, as opposed to, for example, cities granted Royal Charter in the United Kingdom, which may have equal or greater authority than their containing counties.

Most states have constitutional and legal descriptions of what powers cities and towns can exercise. Recently many cities have begun passing laws to ban things like plastic grocery bags or hydraulic fracturing, and states have then passed laws to remove that authority from cities.

States also set requirements for creating new towns. In Texas, any town smaller than 5,000 population is a general law town. General law towns have very little authority to create laws, but they can have a police force to enforce state laws. A city in Texas with population larger than 5,000 people can enact a charter by popular vote and become a home rule city. Home rule cities in Texas can enact some laws with criminal punishments (only citations and class C misdemeanors) and have greater taxing authority, but really can only pick from a menu of options created by the state.

  • Does the UK even have counties anymore?
    – phoog
    Aug 27, 2016 at 0:30
  • @phoog Yes. They're responsible, for example, for maintaining the roads except in large cities (which are essentially counties unto themselves). Aug 27, 2016 at 9:02

In California, cities/counties/municipalities get the ability to govern from the California Government Code.

Similarly, in Washington State, Title 35 regulates cities.

You'll find similar statutes in every state.

  • Might it be that in some states, rather than having a single act of the legislature that says the powers of municipalities shall be the following: etc. etc., there's one act that says municipalities can license and regulate liquor stores, another that says municipalities can enact building codes, another that says they have enact zoning ordinances, another that says they can have local traffic laws, etc.? I have the impression it might be done that way in Minnesota, but I've never looked into it. Aug 26, 2016 at 18:17
  • @MichaelHardy Yes, the source of authority can be scattered around various statutes. It probably is in many cases (just guessing).
    – user3851
    Aug 26, 2016 at 18:19

The first stop is to look at your state constitution. In Washington, article XI Sect 1 recognises the existing counties at time of statehood as legal subdivisions (there is a provision for rearranging counties). Section 4 directs the legislature to create a uniform system of county government and for township government via majority vote of the electorate. Counties have the option of establishing a "Home Rule" charter, which allows the county to make rules. Section 10 allows the creation of municipal corporations, and in cities of 10,000 or more inhabitants, the corporation (city) has the the power to make local law. The legislature then enacted RCW Title 35, which fleshes out powers of cities and towns, Title 35A which is about "optional municipal code", and counties are regulated / authorized under Title 36. Specific authority is sprinkled thoughout these titles like powdered sugar on a doughnut.

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