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Chapter Summary

Frug, Gerald E. and David Barron. 2008. City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ Press. (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3 expands on the concept of home rule, which was mentioned as part of the Chapter 2 discussion of autonomy. By definition, home rule is a set of measures, varying from state to state, that allocates authority from state governments to local municipalities. It dictates that measures taken by local city governments are not mandated by state legislation and in some cases - may override the authority of the state.

Frug and Barron spend much of the chapter analyzing the concept of home rule through the lens of Boston. Because the citys 1822 charter reinforced the state as the supreme force in Bostons legal hierarchy, city authorities lacked concrete measures of dealing with a declining urban population in the years following World War II. As a result, the state legislature passed a Home Rule Amendment that was a step in creating more localized authority.

Although it kept Boston heavily reliant on the state for legislative decisions, it granted two key measures. The first gave the city the ability to organize procedures, administration, and city regulations. A charter commission was created to lead reform, with all measures subject to a vote by city residents. This feature transferred the power of reform from city officials to a select commission. In cities such as New York and San Francisco, comparable measures have led to increased civic engagement. The second key power is that of general home rule. This measure enables any city or town to exercise any power or function which the general court [the Massachusetts state legislature] has the power to confer.

Despite this seemingly broad scope, two key aspects of the amendment limit the local governments effectiveness. First, the amendment features six exemptions, or policies in which home rule is denied: (i) regulating elections; (ii) collecting taxes; (iii) borrowing money; (iv) disposing of parkland; (v) enacting laws that govern civil relationships; and (vi) defining or imposing punishment for a felony. A few other cities have established much more flexible systems. For example, Chicago offers specific definitions for acceptable powers, while San Francisco allows the city government to alter city election policy.

Second, the concept of preemption - the power of a state government to override local laws severely restricts the concept of home rule in Boston. Massachusetts state law is comprehensive in its coverage, causing much interference between home rule developments in Boston and the law enacted by the state legislature, effectively undercutting the broad grant of power expressed by home rule. Again, Frug and Barron admit that this issue varies by state and, in some cases, city codes can take precedent over state policies.