Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

First Advisor

Dr. W. Roy Hamilton


The local governing bodies in Rhode Island are called town councils and are empowered to act as agents of the State in various municipal matters affecting their respective communities. This study surveys the powers of these agencies and attempts to determine the answers to the following four questions:

1. What are the sources of legal powers granted to local town councils by the state and how extensive are these powers?

2. What applicability, if any, does the separation of powers theory have in Rhode Island local government?

3. What legal factors distinguish the president of the town council from other members of the town council and make him a limited chief executive?

4. How have the legal powers and responsibilities of town councils grown as a response to increasing social complexities?

The sources of legal powers include the General Laws of ~R..h... o...=. de~ Island, as amended in 1956, plus subsequent changes; the Public ~: judicial decisions affecting statutory legislation: limited constitutional provisions: and local home rule charters. The General Laws are the primary source because they enumerate powers delegated by the General Assembly (state legislature) to local municipalities and include many "Public Laws. 11 The Public~ issued for each General Assembly session contains legislative acts of private as well as general application that have become law. The General ~ are the statutes of general concern, many of which are found in the Public ~· More than 1800 provisions of State law give town councils a wide variety of powers in the fields of general government, public works, finance, health, welfare, conservation, education, libraries, public safety, and business regulation.

An application of the "separation of powers" theory to Rhode Island town government indicates that in 28 communities the town council possesses and exercises legislative, executive and judicial powers. In the four home rule towns there is some evidence that powers are divided into administrative and legislative functions performed respectively by the town administrator or manager and town council. Although home rule charters prohibit councilmen from interfering with administrative actions of the chief executive, the charter provisions do not appear to provide adequate safeguards against violations of this principle.

The Council President has appointing powers and some authority not shared with others. He may be compared with the mayor in a weak-mayor-council system, because as a limited chief executive he performs ceremonial functions, acts as presiding officer at council meetings, and does not possess a veto power. He is usually regarded as the spokesman for the town council as well as the town government on matters of public concern.

The Rhode Island General Assembly, like its counterparts elsewhere, has reacted slowly and cautiously in delegating more authority to the political subdivision of the state. Minimum housing enabling legislation as an example was not passed in Rhode Island until 1962 seven years after a national policy on the subject was defined and formulated. Problems of local taxation and historic zoning are other examples of matters of municipal concern that have received delayed treatment.



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