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Michigan Municipal League Explains Differences Between Forms of Local Governments in Michigan

By the League's Information & Policy Research Department

What is the origin of local government in Michigan? What are its powers? What are its functions? The current status of cities and villages in Michigan is the result of historical tradition, home rule, and the initiative of individual communities. In the early 1800s, the territory of Michigan was surveyed and laid out in a system of 6 x 6 square mile grids called townships (legend has it this is as long as a man could travel on a horse to and from the county courthouse in one day).

Michigan became a state in 1837; when people started settling here in greater numbers, the Legislature recognized the need to incorporate these densely settled areas. These fledgling governments could now regulate the health, safety, and welfare of the people within the community. On a regulatory level, local governments were authorized to establish ordinances and to provide local services such as fire and police protection, public works, and utilities; there were also mandatory statutory duties: assessing property; collecting taxes for counties and school districts; and administering county, state and national elections.


During the late 1800s, for a city to be incorporated, the Legislature had to adopt local or special acts for each community. This was cumbersome and inefficient—in 1907, more than 400 such acts were written! With the adoption of the 1908 constitution, Michigan became the eighth home rule state. Home rule generally refers to the authority of a city or village to draft and adopt a charter for its own government. This contrasts with legislative establishment of local charters by special act. Home rule frees cities and villages to devise forms of government and exercise powers of local self-government, adopted by local referendum.


The basic difference between cities and villages is that villages are part of townships and cities are not. Village residents participate in township government and pay township taxes, in addition to having their own village government. Incorporation as a city, however, removes an area from township government.

Cities and townships are considered primary forms of government. Villages are secondary forms of government—the mandatory state duties of assessing property, collecting county and school taxes, and administering county, state, and national elections are done by the township in which the village is located.

Most villages (210 of 256) are governed under the General Law Village Act, PA 3 of 1895. Home rule charters for villages are the exception; though any village may adopt a home rule document under the Home Rule Village Act of 1909.

A city, being withdrawn from the township, must perform the basic, state-required duties as well as provide its own services. In addition to being responsible for assessing property and collecting taxes for county and school purposes, the city also becomes solely responsible for registration of voters and conduct of all elections within its boundaries. The greater independence of the city, in maintaining local regulations and functions and state-imposed duties in one integrated unit, accounts for the creation of many small cities in Michigan during recent decades. The trend has also developed in villages to seek incorporation as cities whereby they achieve a separation of jurisdiction from the township.


The adoption of the Fourth Class City Act in 1895 created two types of cities: those 3,000 to 10,000 in population, which became fourth class cities, and all others, which remained “special charter” cities. All but one of the “special charter” cities (Mackinac Island) subsequently reincorporated as home rule cities. In an awkward to describe technical act, all fourth class cities became home rule cities in 1976 (PA 334 of 1976), which continued the Fourth Class City Act as the charter for each former fourth class city until it elects to revise its charter. As of January 2011, five cities continue to be governed by the Fourth Class City Act.


Council-Manager Form
In the council manager form of government, the elected council appoints a professionally trained and experienced manager to administer the day-to-day operations of the city, and to make recommendations to the city council. The council makes all policy decisions, including review, revision and final approval of the proposed annual budget.

Mayor-Council Plan
Two forms of the mayor-council plan are used by a number of Michigan home rule cities: the “strong” mayor and “weak” mayor form. The strong mayor is most often found in larger cities where the directly elected mayor, who is not a member of the governing body, appoints and removes the key administrative officials (those who, by charter, report directly to and assist the mayor); often has variations of veto power over council decisions; is usually salaried; and is expected to devote full-time to mayoral duties.

The weak mayor form is found generally in smaller cities and villages. The mayor or president is a member of the governing body, chairs council meetings, and normally is the municipality’s chief policy and ceremonial official by virtue of the position of mayor rather than through any specific authority extending beyond that of the councilmembers. The mayor also serves as chief administrative official, although department heads often operate more or less independently with only general coordination.

Under the weak mayor form there is no central administrator by formal title such as city manager. Some smaller cities are fortunate to have key long-serving staff who sense the overall cooperation needed to accomplish the city’s programs, and informally proceed for the city’s betterment.


Of the 256 villages in Michigan, 46 have home rule charters, and 210 are governed by the General Law Village Act (1895 PA 3). The general law village, the most common by far, has the typical weak mayor council form of government. Village presidents are elected at-large. The statewide act governing general law villages, Act 3 of 1895, has been amended by the Legislature many times since its enactment. Significant amendments include: making the president a full voting member of the village council; the option to reduce council from seven to five members; the ability to change the clerk and treasurer from elected to appointed positions, and allowing villages to either run their own elections or opt for them to be run by the township.

The Home Rule Village Act requires that every village so incorporated provide for the election of a president, clerk and legislative body, and for the election or appointment of such other officers and boards as may be essential. However, the president need not be directly elected by the people but may be elected by the village council. Of the 46 home rule villages only 19 have a village manager position. The home rule village form of government offers flexibility that is not found in the General Law Village Act. Home rule village charters in Michigan are as diverse as the communities that adopt them.


Who’s The Oldest? Who’s The Newest?

  • Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest community, founded in 1641. However, Detroit was the first incorporated “town” in 1802, and then as a city in 1815; followed by Monroe in 1837, and Grand Rapids in 1850.

  • Grosse Pointe Farms is the only municipality incorporated from a detached territory (from Grosse Pointe Village in 1893).

  • The village of Lake Isabella is the most recent incorporation from an unincorporated area, in 1998.

  • The most recent incorporations of cities were the general law village of Caro, in 2009, and the home rule village of Caseville, in 2010.

  • Rose City changed from a Fourth Class City to a Home Rule City in 2004.

  • Mackinac Island is the only remaining special charter city.

Remaining Fourth Class Cities (Population)

  • Harrisville (514)

  • Omer (337)

  • Sandusky (2,745)

  • Whittemore (476)

  • Yale (2,063)

  • The only city/city/village consolidation in Michigan occurred in 2000 when the cities of Iron River and Stambaugh and the village of Mineral Hills merged.

  • The Following Cities Incorporated From Townships

  • Auburn Hills, 1983

  • Burton, 1971

  • Farmington Hills, 1972 (also included the villages of Quakertown and Woodcreek Farms)

  • Livonia, 1950

  • Norton Shores, 1967

  • Portage, 1963

  • Rochester Hills, 1984

  • Romulus, 1968

  • Southgate, 1958

  • Sterling Heights, 1966

  • Taylor, 1966

  • Warren, 1955 (was a village plus incorporated Warren Township when it became a city)

  • Westland, 1964

Michigan Population

  • 1820: 8,767 (in the Michigan Territory, which included much of Ohio and Indiana)

  • 1837: Michigan admitted to the Union as 26th state

  • 1840: 212,267

  • 2000: 9,938,444

Michigan Has

  • 83 Counties

  • 1,242 townships

  • 277 cities

  • 256 villages

Most & Least...

  • Tuscola County has the most villages with 10

  • Wayne County has the most cities with 33

  • Oakland County has the most cities and villages with 39

  • Keweenaw, Luce, Montmorency, Ontonagon, and Roscommon Counties each have one incorporated area, a village.

  • Crawford, Schoolcraft, and Alpena counties each have one incorporated area, a city.

Population Stats


Forestville (Sanilac County) is the smallest village in the state, with 127 residents, whereas Beverly Hills (Oakland County) is the largest, with 10,437 residents.

Lake Angelus (Oakland County) has 326 residents and is the smallest city in the state. Detroit (Wayne County) is the largest with 951,270 residents.

Did you know that there's only one city in the state of Michigan that is Special Charter? Or that out of the 256 villages in the state, 46 are Home Rule while the rest are General Law?

*Population information based on 2000 Census figures. At publication, 2010 Census figures were not yet available.

The Information & Policy Research Department is comprised of many different services of the League, including publications and information services.



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