Depending on the size of your city or county, you can probably become involved with your local government at a young age. Your council members and other government officials should be more accessible to you than state and federal officials, so take advantage of that. Visit the county court house and volunteer in whatever capacity you can with county-organized programs, such as tutoring in a literacy program or leading children's reading groups at the public library.
You can also become involved with local elections. Many candidates for local and state offices welcome young people to assist with campaigns. As a volunteer, you may make calls, post signs, and get to see a candidate at work. You will also have the opportunity to meet others who have an interest in government, and the experience will help you to gain a more prominent role in later campaigns.
Another way to learn about government is to become involved in an issue that interests you. Maybe there's an old building in your neighborhood you'd like to save from destruction, or maybe you have some ideas for youth programs or programs for senior citizens. Research what's being done about your concerns and come up with solutions to offer to local officials.
There are a variety of different forms of local government across the country, but they all share similar concerns. County and city governments make sure that the local streets are free of crime as well as free of potholes. They create and improve regional parks and organize music festivals and outdoor theater events to be staged in these parks. They identify community problems and help to solve them in original ways. For example, King County in Washington State, in an effort to solve the problem of unemployment among those recently released from jail, developed a baking training program for county inmates. The inmates' new talents with danishes and bread loaves opened up opportunities for good-paying jobs in grocery store bakeries all across the county.
The Innovative Farmers of Michigan Program, which was organized in Huron, Tuscola, and Sanilac Counties, was developed to introduce new methods of farming to keep agriculture part of the county's economy. The program studies new cover-crops, tillage systems, and herbicides, with two primary goals: reduce the amount of sediment entering the Saginaw Bay and alter farming practices to reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff while retaining profitability for the farmers. In Onondaga County, N.Y., the public library started a program of basic reading instruction for deaf adults. In Broward County, Fla., a program provides a homelike setting for supervised visitation and parenting training for parents who are separated from their children due to abuse or domestic violence.
The needs for consumer protection, water quality, and affordable housing increase every year. Regional or local officials are elected to deal with issues such as public health, legal services, housing, and budget and fiscal management. They attend meetings and serve on committees. They know about the industry and agriculture of the area as well as the specific problems facing constituents, and they offer educated solutions, vote on laws, and generally represent the people in their districts.
There are two forms of county government: the commissioner/administrator form, in which the county board of commissioners appoints an administrator who serves the board, and the council/executive form, in which a county executive is the chief administrative officer of the district and has the power to veto ordinances enacted by the county board. A county government may include a chief executive, who directs regional services; council members, who are the county legislators; a county clerk, who keeps records of property titles, licenses, etc.; and a county treasurer, who is in charge of the receipt and disbursement of money.
County government funds come from taxes, state aid, fees, and grants. A city government funds its projects and programs with money from sales tax and other local taxes, block grants, and state aid. Directing these funds and services are elected executives. Mayors are elected by the general populace to serve as the heads of city governments. Their specific functions vary depending on the structure of their government. In mayor-council governments, both the mayor and the city council are popularly elected. The council is responsible for formulating city ordinances, but the mayor exercises control over the actions of the council. In such governments, the mayor usually plays a dual role, serving not only as chief executive officer but also as an agent of the city government responsible for such functions as maintaining public order, security, and health. In a commission government, the people elect a number of commissioners, each of whom serves as head of a city department. The presiding commissioner is usually the mayor. The final type of municipal government is the council/manager form. Here, the council members are elected by the people, and one of their functions is to hire a city manager to administer the city departments. A mayor is elected by the council to chair the council and officiate at important municipal functions.