Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
There's an old song, most famously sung by Ray Charles, entitled Georgia on My Mind. It was actually made the official state song of Georgia in 1979. As one of the 13 oldest states in the USA and one of the most active in the American Revolution, Civil War, and several periods in between, Georgia has been on a lot of people's minds for quite some time. This state has played a major role in American history and continues to do so today, which means that the various governments of Georgia tend to influence a lot of lives. Through it's several layers of government, Georgia keeps its people in mind as well.
The state government of Georgia, like the federal government of the United States, is composed of three branches, an executive, legislative, and judicial. Interestingly, Georgia's separation of powers actually predates the federal government's. Georgia first devised a government of executive, legislative and judicial bodies back in 1777, while the United States Constitution was not drafted until 1789.
So, what makes up these offices today? The state executive branch is dominated by the governor, the highest member of that branch. The governor is basically like the president of Georgia. Georgia's legislative branch is controlled by the Georgia General Assembly, which is basically their version of Congress. It is divided into two houses of elected representatives: the State Senate and House of Representatives. Finally, the state judiciary contains six different court systems, each with authority over a different area of law. Georgia also has two appellate courts: the Court of Appeals and Georgia Supreme Court, the highest court in the state.
Georgia's state government is pretty similar to what we see in other states. What makes Georgia really unique, however, is its next level of administration. Georgia is one of the only states today that still has county governments. In fact, most political and social programs in Georgia are carried out at the county level, not the state or city level. Since counties are such important units of administration, Georgia actually has 159 of them, more than any other state except Texas.
Originally, the county government was conducted by four elected officials: the sheriff, the tax commissioner, the judge of the probate court, and the clerk of the superior court. Today, all Georgia counties also elect a county commissioner, who is in charge of daily administrative duties. Most counties today also have a board of commissioners as well, which is sort of like a legislative assembly for the county. The board of commissioners often has more direct power than the county commissioner, reflecting a historic trend in Georgia to try and keep as much power out of individual hands as possible.
Finally, we get to the third tier of Georgia governments: the municipal. There are 520 municipalities in Georgia, each of which is formally created by the state legislature. This being said, municipal governments in Georgia tend to have one of four common forms.
The Strong Mayor-Council
The first form of municipal government in Georgia is the strong mayor-council, which has a clear separation of powers. The executive branch is headed by the mayor, who is in charge of daily administration of the city. The legislative branch, composed of the city council, is in charge of passing municipal policies or ordinances.
The Weak Mayor-Council
A municipality with a less defined separation of powers may have a weak mayor-council form of government. In this situation, the mayor is still the main executive officer, but the title is more ceremonial. The mayor has fewer actual powers, while the city council has a greater role in policymaking. In this system, mayor and city council are expected to work together, with city council taking on most of the important responsibilities.
In the council-manager system, the mayor is a purely ceremonial figure while actual executive duties are performed by a city manager, hired by the city council. This system was developed out of a desire to make cities run more like corporations, with the city council acting sort of like a board of directors and the city manager like a CEO. This form of government was meant to be more efficient, since the city council can hire managers who are most qualified to implement their specific goals.
Finally, we get to the form of municipal government without a single executive leader. The commission system gives all power to the elected members of the city council, who are called commissioners. The commissioners select a chair to lead them, but the position is temporary and frequently changed. While this is not a very common form of municipal government today, it still pops up from time to time when cities want to combine executive and legislative functions into a single political body. The form of municipal government most used throughout the state all depends on what the people of Georgia have on their minds.
Georgia has a unique 3-tiered system of government reflecting the state's long and unique history. At the top is the state government, with an executive branch headed by the governor, a legislative body called the Georgia General Assembly, and a judicial branch championed by the Georgia Supreme Court. Most of Georgia's political life, however, happens one level lower in county governments. The traditional elected offices of assembly-style county governments include the sheriff, the tax commissioner, the judge of the probate court, the clerk of the superior court, a county commissioner, and a board of commissioners. Finally, Georgian municipalities tend to have one of four government structures: the strong mayor-council, the weak-mayor council, the council-manager, or the commission system. These various systems give Georgians a lot of control and options with the government, something that has been a state priority since 1777. That's a pretty good reason for all of us to keep Georgia on our minds.
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