Who's In Charge? Civics 101

Civics 101

The first step in resolving an issue locally is to figure out who is in charge: What local official or office has jurisdiction over the matter in question?

In the U.S. there are three levels of government: Local, State and Federal and it's not unusual for jurisdictions to overlap. Often local, state, and federal laws all co-exist unless there is a conflict. It's often up to the courts to decide issues of state-federal jurisdiction or even state-local jurisdiction if laws are passed that are inconsistent or conflict with each other.

Some issues may cross jurisdictions. Bodies of water are often patrolled by both state and local police officers or by local police officers and state wildlife wardens. If the issue relates to navigation, the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may also have jurisdiction. It's best to start locally and work your way up the chain of command.

Regardless of the type of local government, someone is in charge, whether it is a mayor or county commissioner. Local government has three branches, Executive, Legislative and Judicial, just like the federal government.

How Local Governments are Organized

Local governments have highly variable structures with differing levels of power delegated to the various branches. Some common titles include:

  • Executive:Mayor, City Manager, County Commissioner, County Executive
  • Legislative: City Council, County Council, Board of Supervisors, Freeholders
  • Judicial: Circuit & County Judges


State level governing structures are more uniform, most following the general form of the federal government. Titles include:

  • Executive: Governor
  • Legislative: Senator, Representative, Delegates, Assemblyman
  • Judicial: District Court of Appeals, Appellate Court and State Supreme Court

Ways to Approach Local Officials

  • The key to successfully addressing local issues is to find out who the decision makers are and to contact them to express your opinion. This guide will show you a variety of ways to do this — whether it entails emailing/writing a letter to the public figure directly, commenting in writing during a public comment period or speaking at a public meeting on the issue to express your views.
  • In addition to expressing your views, it helps to encourage like-minded individuals from your town, city, or state to do the same. BoatU.S. represents you and more than 500,000 similar boaters when we speak to Congress on federal issues, but for local issues, your best allies are other local boaters.
  • In sections to follow, we will give you some suggestions on how to write legislators, find and rally local boaters to your cause, and how to generate media coverage to help bolster your position or bring attention to a problem. And don't forget, your elected officials may be boaters too (or maybe you could make them one!)