Citizen Participation and Involvement

If the American system of government is to function properly, citizens must actively participate in its operations at all levels, but especially at the local level. Local officials have both a responsibility and a stake in keeping citizens fully informed about local programs and activities and giving them clear opportunities to play meaningful roles in determining local public policy and in carrying it out.

The history, tradition, development and patterns of local government in New York State are based on a belief that a responsive and responsible citizenry will maintain a vigorous, informed and continuous participation in the processes of local government. A basic principle upon which New York local government, with its broad home rule authority, is constructed is that local community values can be fostered and served. Assuring meaningful participation by citizens in government at all levels in the face of the complexity of contemporary society is one of the great challenges of American democracy.

The individual citizen has numerous ways to influence government. Some of these, such as writing letters to public officials, joining interest groups and supporting lobbying efforts, are of a private nature. The structure of government itself, however, provides other avenues of a more formal character. These include applications of the electoral process through which citizens may express their interests and concerns, plus devices such as public hearings and open meetings of legislative bodies. All local officials have a basic duty to assure that citizens have ways to participate actively and meaningfully in local government affairs. Apart from making themselves accessible to their constituents, local officials can keep citizens informed about public affairs, and the citizens, in turn may express their will through the electoral process.

The Electoral Process

Abroad base of participation in local government forms the foundation of our working democracy, and the electoral process is only one of many ways in which the individual citizen can make his or her views felt at the local level.

Elective Offices

At the turn of the twentieth century, enlightened citizen groups recommended adoption of the short ballot along with several electoral reforms. They believed that a citizen could acquire more knowledge about candidates and issues and could therefore vote more intelligently if fewer offices appeared on the ballot. They argued further that the voter’s basic concern lay with choosing officers who would make policy rather than filling jobs of an administrative or even clerical nature in which there was no decision-making authority. Despite some improvements during the past century, the length of a ballot still seems to depend on the proximity to the citizen of the governmental level — national, state and local. In the American three-branch system of government, the minimum ballot would include a chief executive (or two), one or more legislators, and perhaps judges. At the state level, the ballot may also include the offices of attorney general, state comptroller or auditor, and others. At the local level, the ballot grows to include such miscellaneous offices as town clerk, superintendent of highways and others.

New Yorkers, in their local elections, have to vote for officers to serve in two, three, or even more different local governments. A city resident will, for example, be voting for county and city and often school district officials. A village resident will be voting not only for village officials but also for county, town and school district officials. A resident of the town outside the area of the village may be voting in a fire district election as well as in county, town and school district elections. Although there are infinite variations, the most typical elected local officials appear in the following list.

  • County

  • executive (charter county only)

  • county legislators(s) (except in counties retaining boards of supervisors)

  • county clerk

  • county treasurer

  • Coroner[1]

  • comptroller

  • sheriff

  • district attorney

  • county judge

  • family court judge

  • surrogate

  • City

  • mayor

  • comptroller

  • council members

  • municipal judges

  • Town

  • supervisor

  • board members

  • justices

  • town clerk

  • superintendent of highways

  • receiver of taxes or tax collector

  • assessors[2]

  • Village

  • mayor

  • trustees

  • justice(s)

Legislative Elections

During the 1960s and 1970s, many counties changed their governing body from a board of supervisors to a county legislature, with representation based on districts. In those counties, town residents have to vote for one or more county legislators in addition to the town supervisor, who formerly served ex officio as the town’s representative on the county legislative body. Counties with county legislatures elect legislators from single or multi-member districts, or a combination of single and multi-member districts. Cities elect members of the city council at-large, or from wards or districts, or both at-large and from wards or districts. Towns elect members of the town board at-large, or from wards that have been established pursuant of Town Law section 81. A few villages operate on a ward system.

Fire District Elections

Elections in fire districts generally occur pursuant to the Town Law, and each fire district elects five commissioners and a treasurer at large. [special_purpose_units_of_government#special_purpose_units_of_government] discusses these officials in a greater detail.

School District Elections

With certain rare exceptions, all local school board members in New York are elected. The method of election varies from district to district. In all school districts that elect their board members, however, the citizens of the entire district elect all board members at large. The number of school board members prescribed by state law varies from one or three for common school districts to not more than nine for union free, central and city school districts (see [special_purpose_units_of_government#special_purpose_units_of_government] for a more complete discussion of school boards). In most cases, the district has some latitude to decide upon the number of board members. Terms are staggered so that the entire board is never up for election at the same time.

Improvement Districts

In some towns, residents also elect boards of commissioners for independent improvement districts. Since it has not been possible to create additional independent districts under the Town Law since 1932, elections continue only in those districts which continue to exist.

The Political Party System

State law provides for political party committees at the state and county level and other committees as the rules of the party provide. Generally, county committees consist of at least two members elected at primary elections from each election district within the county. As a practical matter, the party system is subdivided further into town committees and city committees. Many village elections and all school district and fire district elections are held on a nonpartisan basis, but town, county and (with a few exceptions) city elections are contests between local representatives of statewide parties.

In the absence of a primary election, candidates for local offices who are designated by party caucuses become the nominees, but a competing candidate who obtains the required number of voters’ names on a petition can require that a primary be held on the statewide primary date. Primaries in New York State are closed, and voters must enroll in a party to be eligible to vote in that party’s primary. Since 1967 permanent personal registration has been in effect statewide.

Election Calendar

Some municipal elections coincide with statewide elections, while others are also held in November, but in the “off” or odd-numbered years. In fact, a provision of the State Constitution requires that city campaigns for mayor not coincide with gubernatorial campaigns. An election may, however, be held in an even-numbered year if necessary to fill a vacancy in the office of the mayor. Village elections are generally held in March or June, but they may be held on any date the locality chooses. Except in cities, school district elections are generally held annually on the first Tuesday in May or June. Fire district elections are held annually on the second Tuesday in December.

Table 1. Election Calendar by Local Government Type
Type Calendar


November even-numbered year


November odd-and even-numbered year


November odd-numbered year


November odd-numbered year


March or June annually or biennially

School District

May or June annually

Fire District

December annually


The use of the referendum — direct vote of the people on issues — has been limited in New York State in accordance with the basic principles of a representative form of government. On the principle that voters elect government officials to make decisions on their behalf, government officials are not given broad authority to delegate decision making powers back to the electorate. Case law stipulates that a local government must find specific authority, either in the constitution or state law, to conduct an official referendum on any subject, and in the absence of such authority it may not conduct a referendum. A local government may not spend public monies to conduct a so-called “advisory referendum,” one conducted to gather public opinion on a particular matter, unless state law specifically authorizes it.

Types of Referenda

There are general classifications of referenda available to local governments in New York State. These are mandatory, permissive, on petition and discretionary.

A mandatory referendum is one which is required and in which a local government has no choice; it must submit the particular question to referendum.

A permissive referendum is one in which the local governing body is authorized to place a matter before the voters on its own motion. Or, after the local governing body renders a decision on the matter, it may be required to wait a specified period of time (after public notice of the decision) before the matter is finally decided. During that interval, a petition may be filed demanding that the local governing body may submit the matter to referendum for a public decision. A proper petition, as defined by law, must be filed within the timeframe, set forth by law.

Referendum on petition relates to situations in which a proper petition may be circulated and filed, as defined by law, directing the local government body to schedule a referendum on the subject matter of the petition. A discretionary referendum, the most flexible variety, allows the governing body to determine whether a particular action under consideration shall be subject to referendum and if so, whether mandatory or permissive.

Referendum Majorities

There are a few instances in which more than a simple majority is required for the approval of a question submitted to the voters. Perhaps the most important of these is the requirement for adoption of a county charter. This requires a majority vote in any city or cities in the county and a majority vote outside the city or cities (i.e., towns). If a charter provides for the transfer of any function from the villages to the county, a majority vote in the affected villages is also required.

Subjects of Referenda

Generally local governments are required to conduct a referendum on any question involving basic changes in the form or structure of government, such as county or city charter adoption, changes in boundaries or in the composition of legislative bodies, and the abolition or creation of elective offices.

Procedures relating to permissive referenda must be observed in counties and cities, as well as in towns and villages, for such matters as appropriating money from reserve funds and constructing, leasing or purchasing a public utility service. In towns, permissive referenda are required for changes from second to first class if the town has between 5,000 and 10,000 in population. A permissive referendum is also required for a change from first class to suburban town status. Such actions by towns are roughly equivalent to charter adoption by a county or city, which is subject to mandatory referendum. The towns, however, are more generally bound by referendum requirements than any other type of local government unit. For example, towns, but not other units, are subject to permissive referenda when constructing, purchasing or leasing a town building or land there for and when establishing airports, public parking, parks, playgrounds, and facilities for collection and disposal of solid wastes.

Local laws of counties, cities, towns and villages are subject to referenda on petition if they result in changes in existing laws relating to such matters as public bidding, purchases, contracts, assessments, power of condemnation, auditing, and alienation or leasing of property.

The creation of improvement districts in both towns and counties is a frequent subject of referenda. The referendum for a county water, sewer, drainage or refuse district is permissive. A town improvement district can be established either on petition and action of the town board or by motion of the town board and with a permissive referendum held in the area to be included in the district.

In practice, matters subject to permissive referenda or referenda on petition are seldom actually brought to referenda, unless they become the subject of particular local controversy. Matters subject to referenda in recent elections have included:

  • county charter adoption;

  • increases in terms of local offices from two to four years;

  • city charter amendments or revisions;

  • county reapportionment plans;

  • transfer of street-naming authority from cities, towns and villages to a county;

  • change from at-large elections to the ward system;

  • village incorporation;

  • coterminous town-village; and

  • village dissolution.

Initiative and Recall

New York State law does not recognize the principle of recall, by which an elected officeholder may be removed by a popular vote. There are very few instances in which there may be initiative, where the voters initiate and enact laws or constitutional amendments. Although not strictly an example of the initiative, citizens in New York may, by petition, require a referendum on certain actions taken by a local governing body. There are also instances in which a petition can initiate official action. The voters of a county may, by petition, require the submission of a proposition at a general election on the question of appointment of a charter commission. If approved by the voters, the county legislative body must appoint a commission.

Voters of a city may, by petition, require submission of a city charter amendment or new city charter to the electors. Since the substance of such a local law must be set forth in full in the petition, this procedure is similar to the initiative as it is known in other states. Voters in Suffolk County may, through an initiative and referendum procedure, enact amendments to the county charter. A special Act of the State Legislature provided authority for this power.

Facilitating Citizen Participation

Boards and Commissions

Since school board members and fire district commissioners are unpaid volunteers, and since many other local officials in New York State, including some chief executive officers and legislators, receive nominal salaries, they embody citizen participation in government. However, the growing responsibilities of local officials make it more difficult to operate local governments effectively with part-time leadership.

Citizens of New York State have many opportunities to participate in local government as members of advisory or operational special-purpose agencies, such as planning boards, environmental councils and recreation boards, to name a few. These agencies offer local officials opportunities to enlist the talents, interest and concern of the community in important aspects of local government. In addition to the many special agencies authorized by state law, local chief executives and legislative bodies have authority to establish and appoint ad hoc citizens’ advisory committees on numerous matters, such as reapportionment, historical celebrations and new municipal buildings. A municipality may also, if it wishes, have a continuing citizens’ advisory committee to consider a variety of matters as they arise.

There are many reasons for local officials to encourage citizens to participate actively in their local governments, including:

  • involvement of citizens in the planning stages of a program or project so as to avoid misunderstandings and problems at later stages;

  • obtaining firsthand knowledge of citizen needs and problems;

  • taking advantage of expertise which might otherwise not be available, especially in small communities;

  • spreading the base of community support;

  • improving public relations; and

  • fulfilling the requirements of certain federal programs.

Public Hearings

The public hearing provides a convenient and useful forum for citizens to play a significant role in the governmental decision-making process. As a general rule, local governments in New York State are required to hold public hearings whenever the action of the governing body can be expected to have significant impact on the citizenry. For example, the law requires public hearings as part of the approval process for:

  • local laws and ordinances;

  • zoning regulations;

  • capital improvements;

  • budgets; and

  • certain federal programs.

Local governing bodies may also conduct a hearing at any time on any subject on which they wish to obtain the views of the public. In addition, the Open Meetings Law (see “Public Information and Reporting” below) requires that all meetings of public bodies be convened open to the public and preceded by notice given to the public and news media.

The choice of whether to hold a hearing often depends upon striking a balance between democratic requirements and the interests of government efficiency. The choice may not be easy, but an informational hearing, even when not mandated, maybe advisable where the subject matter is particularly controversial.


Where there is a specific provision in law regarding notice of a public hearing, the notice should be sufficient to inform the public of the date, time, place and subject of the hearing. A small notice in a large newspaper, however, is often inadequate. When significant issues affect either a particular neighborhood or the entire community, public notices may be conspicuously displayed at several key locations in the jurisdiction affected. Public officials should write notices in a language that laymen can understand, rather than in legal language unfamiliar to most people.

Public officials should consult with the language of New York State’s Open Meeting Law and the Committee on Open Government ( to ensure compliance and best practices.


Although governments traditionally hold public hearings in a central municipal building, they frequently use other venues in the community to conduct hearings on issues affecting specific geographic locations. By so doing, they gain greater neighborhood participation and sharper focus of attention on an issue. Government decision makers are likely to learn more about a problem by visiting the area of the problem.

Statutory Provisions

There is no uniformity in state law with respect to public hearings and procedures. Specific provisions requiring public hearings and setting forth procedures to follow are generally spread out through the laws relating to the various types of local governments. In many cases the requirements for a hearing will vary depending on the section of law involved.

Public Information and Reporting

Freedom of Information Law

In 1974, the State Legislature enacted the Freedom of Information Law (Article 6, Public Officers Law). Subsequently, the law was substantially amended to provide the public with broad authority to inspect and copy records of state and local government. Under the Freedom of Information Law, all government records are available, except those records or portions of records that the law allows the government to withhold. In most instances, the law describes the grounds for denial in terms of potentially harmful effects of disclosure.

The Law created the Committee on Open Government, which consists of 11 members. The Committee includes the Secretary of State, in whose Department the Committee is housed, the Lieutenant Governor, the Director of the Budget, the Commissioner of the Office of General Services, six non-office holding citizens, and an elected official of a local government. The Governor appoints four of the public members, at least two of whom must be or have been representatives of the news media, and an elected official of a local government; the Speaker of the Assembly and the Temporary President of the Senate appoint one public member each. The Law enables the Committee:

  • furnish to any agency advisory guidelines, opinions or other appropriate information regarding the law;

  • furnish to any person advisory opinions or other appropriate information regarding the law;

  • promulgate rules and regulations with respect to the implementation of the law;

  • request from any agency such assistance, services and information as will enable the committee to effectively carry out its powers and duties; and

  • report annually on its activities and findings, including recommendations for changes in the law, to the Governor and the Legislature.

Each agency in the state must adopt procedural rules consistent with (and no more restrictive than) the rules promulgated by the Committee on Open Government. In addition to rights of access to records generally, units of local government as well as state agencies must maintain and make available three types of records, including:

  • a record of votes of each member in every proceeding in which a member votes;

  • a record identifying every officer and employee by name, public office address, title and salary; and

  • a reasonably detailed current list by subject matter, of all records in the possession of the agency, whether or not the records are available (Note: It has been advised that municipalities, by resolution, may adopt the records retention schedule issued by the State Archives and Records Administration (SARA) as the subject matter list).

In a judicial challenge to a denial of access to records, the agency has the burden of proving that the records withheld fall within one or more of the grounds for denial. It has also been held that an agency may not merely assert a ground for denial and prevail; on the contrary, it must demonstrate that the harmful effects of disclosure described in the grounds for denial would arise.

Many local government records available for inspection under the Freedom of Information Law had been available under other earlier laws. The Freedom of Information Law also preserves rights of access granted prior to its enactment by other laws or judicial determinations. The existence of, and publicity given to, the law has also produced a greater uniformity of procedures in state and local government and increased the public’s use of rights to obtain records.

Open Meetings Law

In 1976, the State Legislature enacted the Open Meetings Law (Article 7, Public Officers Law), which is applicable to all public bodies in the state (including governing bodies) as well as their committees, subcommittees and similar bodies. Later amendments to the Law clarified vague original provisions. The Open Meetings Law does not apply to: judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings (except proceedings of zoning boards of appeals); deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses; or any matters made confidential by federal or state law.

The Open Meetings Law provides the people with the right to observe the performance of public officials and attend, observe, and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. Just as the Freedom of Information Law presumes the public’s right of access, the Open Meetings Law presumes openness. The deliberations of public bodies must be open to the public, except when one or more among eight grounds for executive session may appropriately be cited to exclude the public. The grounds for executive session are based largely upon the harmful effects of public airing of particular issues.

In a general statement of intent, the law asserts that every meeting of a public body shall be open to the public except when an executive session is called to discuss particular subjects that are listed in the law. The statute defines “executive session” as that portion of a meeting not open to the general public. Once in executive session, a public body may vote and take final action, except that any vote to appropriate public monies must be conducted in an open meeting.

When a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, public notice of its time and place must be given to the news media and posted in one or more designated public locations at least 72 hours before the meeting. Public notice of the time and place of all other meetings must be given to the public and the news media to the extent practicable at a reasonable time prior to the meeting.

Minutes must be compiled for open meetings and when action is taken during executive sessions. Minutes of executive sessions must be made available within one week; minutes of open meetings must be made available within two weeks. Minutes of executive sessions need not include information not required to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law.

Any aggrieved person has standing to enforce the provisions of the Open Meetings Law. If a public body has taken action in violation of the law, a court has the power to declare the action null and void. A court also has discretion to award reasonable attorney fees to the successful party in a proceeding brought under the law.

Public officials should consult with the Committee on Open Government ( to ensure compliance and best practices.

Records Management

A sound records management program enables local governments to create, use, store, retrieve and dispose of their records in an orderly and cost-effective manner pursuant to applicable state law. Such a program helps make records readily available to staff and the public, prevents the creation of unneeded records and promotes the systematic identification and preservation of records of long-term archival value. Article 57-A of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, the “Local Government Records Law”, requires that the governing body of a local government “promote and support a program for the orderly and efficient management of records.” It also requires that each local government designate a “records management officer.” In towns and villages, the clerk is always the records management officer; in fire districts, it is always the district secretary. All other local governments have discretion on whom they may assign to the records management officers. Through its Local Records Section, the State Archives and Records Administration (SARA) Unit of the State Education Department provides information and assistance to help local governments (except New York City) improve records management and archival administration. It publishes records retention and disposal schedules that list the minimum time periods during which records of all units of local government must be retained.

The State Archives also produces publications, workshops, and web resources to help all local governments better manage all their records, including electronic records. The Archives maintains nine regional offices across the state to provide local onsite advice and direction on records management to local governments.

Information on the administration of court records is provided by the state’s Office of Court Administration. Within New York City, information on municipal records management is provided by the City’s Department of Records, though the Archives’ publications and workshops are also available for use by New York City agencies.

Public Reporting

Annual Reports and Newsletters

In municipal reporting, a fine line separates the need to keep the public informed from the tendency to use public funds to aggrandize an incumbent administration. Although many municipalities in New York State publish and distribute annual reports and/or periodic newsletters, state law does not require them to do so. However, both the Town Law and the Village Law authorize expenditure of funds for publication and distribution of a report relative to fiscal affairs of the municipality. This can and has been interpreted to include most of the items usually incorporated in annual reports, such as programs and services, capital projects, and land or property acquisition. Towns and villages are not expressly authorized to include items, such as biographies of incumbent officers, which are clearly non-fiscal in nature.

Informal Reporting

There are many other ways for local officials to keep the public informed both through the media and through municipal resources. In addition to traditional press releases, municipalities use:

  • municipal websites that include basic information, such as agendas of meetings, minutes, proposed local laws and the ability to communicate by e-mail with local officials;

  • press conferences and media interviews;

  • weekly radio or TV interview programs;

  • slide shows or presentations on new municipal programs, or on the budget, for distribution to civic, professional or school groups;

  • displays on public services and programs at schools, shopping centers, fairs and other public gathering places;

  • prominent posting of time and place of meetings (including public hearings) of the legislative body;

  • rotation of legislative body meetings to various neighborhoods or communities within the municipality;

  • radio or cable television broadcasts of meetings of the legislative body;

  • informational meetings on new programs and significant issues;

  • information centers to direct citizens to appropriate agencies; and

  • publication of materials, such as a directory of local officials and municipal services, newsletters on public services and programs, and brochures or folders on specific services.

Meetings of municipal boards are frequently televised by public access TV stations. Two-way cable television systems are available in some communities and may offer opportunities for local officials to make themselves directly accessible to citizen inquiries.

Media Relations

The media can be valuable to local governments. In addition to using the media for special programs, local officials should contact the press, radio and TV as a means of keeping the public informed about governmental programs. The experience of many local officials suggests that the best approach to the media is to be as open and free with information as possible, and not to avoid controversial issues.

Handling Citizen Complaints

In larger units of government, where citizens may not have easy access to elected officials or know where to go for assistance, problems can arise which may alienate citizens from their governments. Public reporting as discussed above can enhance the ability to solve communication problems between citizens and their government. While most problems can be resolved simply through better communication, some may be insoluble because the citizen expects government to act in a manner inconsistent with or not authorized by law. But even in that case, the citizen may gain satisfaction from having gained the attention of the government and learning that the difficulty involves compliance with law rather than reluctance on the part of the government.

Some local governments have established ombudsman programs to assist citizens with problems involving their agencies. In many cases though, citizen assistance is provided by staffs of local chief executives, municipal clerks, public information officers, members of local legislative bodies and other officials in the performance of their routine duties.

1. Duties are performed by an appointive officer in some counties.
2. Appointive in some towns. As counties and cities adopt and revise charters, the trend is toward fewer elective offices. Changes in state legislation and expanded powers of home rule have also made it possible for towns and villages to reduce the number of elective offices by local action.

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