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State & Local Government Structure in Georgia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Georgia is an important state within the USA, and a unique one. In this lesson, we are going to explore the various levels of government within Georgia and see how each impacts the lives of Georgian citizens.

Georgia

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.

State flag of Georgia
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State Government

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.

Counties of Georgia
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County Government

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.

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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.

Municipal Government

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.

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