The Evolution of County Government Structure: A seven part series

Part five in our seven part series from The Florida County Government Guide: Evolution of County Government Structure in Florida will focus on the Commission-Executive form of county government.   

Part 5 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.

Commission-Executive Form

Only three charter counties have adopted the commission-executive form of government (technically called the “county executive form” in Florida Statutes): Duval; Miami-Dade; and Orange. Like the commission-administrator form, the commission-executive form differs from the traditional commission form in that there are separate roles for making policy and implementing policy. However, it differs from the commission-administrator form, as well, because the person responsible for the executive role (the mayor in the case of these three Florida charter counties) is elected by the county voters rather than appointed by the board of commissioners. And unlike an administrator or manager, the mayor in this form of government is expected to help formulate policy. In each of those three counties, the mayor is expected to suggest policy to the board and influence what is actually passed. In Orange County, the elected mayor actually chairs the commission meetings and has an equal vote with the other six commissioners. In Miami-Dade and Duval, the mayors can veto commission actions (subject to override by the commission). And, of course, since the office is elected, the mayor is also expected to politically lead county residents and speak publically and to the press about the direction of local policy and even, on occasion, state and national party politics. These are activities that are strictly forbidden for county managers and administrators and would almost certainly lead to termination.

The mayors in all three of these counties are similar to the administrators and managers in one way, however, since the mayor is also legally responsible for the administration of county government and executing the laws that the commission passes. In fact, Chapter 125.85, Florida Statutes, sets out specific administrative duties that charter county executives must undertake in addition to whatever else the charter contains. Of course all three of these county mayors employ a full time administrator to oversee day to day operations because of the size of their counties and the enormous workload they carry. Of the three charters, Orange County has the one that might be considered the “average” example of a county executive form of government found in other states. The charters of Miami-Dade and Duval each have an interesting and unique twist on county government structure in Florida. Each was designed to help mitigate the problem of metropolitan fragmentation—the existence of many local governments in one region trying to coordinate and offer citizens services efficiently.

Consolidated Government in Jacksonville/Duval County

The Florida Constitution allows for the merger of local governments, including city-county consolidation, by special legislative act “if approved by vote of the electors of the county, or of the county and municipalities affected.” P The logic behind consolidation is to ease fragmentation and competition between cities and counties and increase efficiency by creating one local government to replace two or more. Jacksonville and Duval County residents voted to merge in 1967, following allegations of widespread corruption in the city government, a weakening tax base, and deteriorating public schools. P But consolidation proposals have been repeatedly rejected by voters elsewhere in the state. P Often incumbent officials and public employees fear loss of their positions; racial minorities fear dilution of their power; and other voters fear larger, more expensive, and less responsive government.

Nonetheless, consolidation did replace separate Jacksonville/Duval County governments with one consolidated government. And so the legislative body for the county is called the Jacksonville City Council and the chief executive of the county is called the Mayor of Jacksonville.

Federated Government in Miami-Dade

Another attempt to coordinate service delivery and mitigate the problems of metropolitan fragmentation is the creation of a federated local government. The Florida Constitution established home rule in 1956 and a special federated government was created in Dade County in 1957. (Dade County officially changed its name to Miami-Dade County in 1997). Interestingly, before the voters of Dade County were able to hold a referendum, the entire state got to vote on approval for this new form of government in 1956 as it was proposed as an amendment to the state constitution (subsequently it was carried forward in the new constitution of 1968).

Unlike consolidation, federated government sets up a two-tier system of governance (much like the U.S. federal system sets up a structure with national and state governments). The 35 municipalities in Miami-Dade make up the lower tier of government and provide police and fire protection, zoning and code enforcement, and other typical city services paid for by city taxes. The county is the higher tier of government and provides services that are more regional in nature such as emergency management, airport and seaport operations, public housing, health care, transportation, and environmental services, which are funded by county taxes on all incorporated and unincorporated areas. P The original charter changed the form of government from the traditional commission form to a county manager form. However, in 2007 the voters of Miami-Dade revised their charter creating the current commission-executive form of government.

This concludes part five of a seven part series on the structure of county government in Florida. If you would like more information on the Commissioner-Executive form of 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; and, 4. Forms of County Government: Administrator or Manager Form.  Our final two articles in this series will look at:  6. Assessing the three forms of government; and, 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.