A Local Charter


Sometimes referred to as a “Constitution,” a city, town, or county charter allows residents the flexibility to choose the kind of government structure allowed by law for their community. A community organized under a charter may choose different systems, including the “strong mayor” or “city manager” forms of government. In this activity, analyze a city charter, determine the relationship between local government to state and federal governments under a charter, and explore the duties of council members, mayor, and a city manager.


Distribute individual copies of the Charter of the City of Virginia Beach (also available online) to each student. Ask students to work in pairs and examine the charter closely and complete Handout #1: The Basics of the Charter of the City of Virginia Beach.

As an alternative to completing Handout #1, students may write down observations, unfamiliar words or phrases, and a list of questions about the Virginia Beach Charter or a charter of your choice.

To find charters for local governments in the state of Virginia, go to the Legislative Reference Center, available from the General Assembly website here.

Group Discussion

Write three columns on the board: Notice, Questions, and Background. Using Handout #2: Group Decision Questions responses, fill-in the columns as a class.

Background Information

Present this background to enhance the group’s knowledge of their local government charter, and as a basis for drawing conclusions later in the activity. Write the words in bold on the board, and use the rest of the text for the guidance.

There are 21 chapters in the City of Virginia Beach Charter. Each chapter defines a specific government institution and outlines its basic powers, functions, and its structure.

The Charter outlined a council-manager form of local government for the City of Virginia Beach. The founders believed this type of government system would be efficient and incorporate the values and principles of a democracy. It is simple in form, it is clear who has the responsibility for policy, and the Council-Manager form relies on highly trained experts who are skilled in budgeting, planning, and other administrative tools. This system allows for a strong council with a weak mayor. The manager is the city's chief administrative officer and is the executive arm of the council. This system is found in more than 8,000 communities and includes cities with populations of more than 25,000.

Under this type of system, voters elect council members and a mayor, who then appoints a city manager. The city manager is the chief administrative officer and appoints the heads of the major departments, which in turn, run the day-to-day operations of the city. The council is the city’s policymaking body. Ultimately, the council and city manager answer to the citizens of Virginia Beach.

Several components are unique to the City of Virginia Beach Charter. For example, it identifies the Oceanfront as a Special District and issuing bonds for the sole purpose of constructing roads, highways, and bridges would not be incorporated into another city charter.

The local government is always subject to or defers to both federal and state laws. The charter also identifies the role local government plays in the federalist system. Chapter 1 allows the City of Virginia Beach to incorporate, or become a legal government unit by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chapter 21 also allows the City of Virginia Beach to have representation in the General Assembly, the legislative arm for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Article VI, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states that: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof: and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the Supreme Law of the Land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Therefore, the City of Virginia Beach Charter is subject to the supremacy of the national government.

Additional background information is available on Handout #3: More Information about the City of Virginia Beach.


What conclusions can students draw about the local government in Virginia Beach? Based on the information from the primary source document and discussion, complete the Handout #4: Crossword Puzzle and Handout #5: Similarities between Local and State Governments Venn Diagram.


The advanced student may compare elements from another city charter and identify the similarities and differences of each. Advanced students may also compare the United States Constitution or the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Constitution to the Charter of Virginia Beach. Students should be able to identify key similarities (democratic election systems, courts, etc.) and differences (no supremacy clause in local government charters).

Remedial students may want to complete the charter activity as a class, or in a small group setting. The crossword puzzle may also be done collectively. A jigsaw activity (groups would each take a section or group of terms, then switch the answers with the other groups) for completing both student worksheet #1 the crossword puzzle would also allow students to complete the activity while retaining important information from the charter.

To extend the activity, students may wish to develop their own charter. Placing students on a deserted island or on a colony to the moon would allow students to identify various principles and structures from the Virginia Beach Charter.

Resources for this activity:

Image with permission from Cornell University Library.