Forms of County Government in Virginia

Arlington County was the first to adopt the County Manager Plan form of government, in 1930
Arlington County was the first to adopt the County Manager Plan form of government, in 1930
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Because Virginia courts operate under the Dillon Rule rather than a "home rule" concept, Virginia's local jurisdictions have only the powers granted to them by the state legislature. The Code of Virginia articulates the authority granted to adopt county ordinances, hire/fire personnel, set tax rates, borrow money, operate water/sewage facilities, alter boundaries of local voting precincts, zone land, issue building permits, etc.

The General Assembly also grants specific authorities to towns, cities and occasionally to counties via charters. After voters ratified the Underwood Constitution in 1869, cities were treated as independent political units separate from adjacent/surrounding counties.

Cities and towns in Virginia are granted "uniform charter powers" in the Code of Virginia. A county has such powers only when specifically granted by the General Assembly, a process which the General Assembly first authorized in 1985.1

It is not uncommon for the state legislature to amend individual city and town charters to meet specific requests by local jurisdictions. Of the 95 counties, only Roanoke, Chesterfield, and James City County have obtained charters in order to get greater flexibility under the Dillon Rule.2

The 1902 Constitution of Virginia was amended in 1928 to allow for different forms of county government. No changes were needed in rural Virginia, but counties next to cities were struggling to provide appropriate services and to manage the expanding number of departments.

Arlington County, the smallest and most-densely populated in the state, was the first to take advantage of the flexibility. After the General Assembly passed special legislation, Arlington County voters approved the first "County Manager Plan" of government in the United States in 1930. The voters also decided to elect all five supervisors at-large, eliminating the county's separate magisterial districts.3

The General Assembly created the Virginia Commission on County Government, which concluded that county governments were "inefficient, wasteful, and irresponsible" due largely to structural causes. Offices had fragmented and overlapping responsibilities, while officials were paid based on the fees and commissions they could charge rather than on fixed salaries.

In 1932 the legislature passed the Optional Forms Act of 1932. It authorized the county executive or the county manager form of county government, centralizing administrative responsibilities to allow more-efficient operations. County Managers were given the authority to hire and fire heads of county agencies. The authority of County Executives was more limited, and they could just recommend such actions to the elected members on the Board.

If local residents voted for the county executive or the county manager new form of local government, two state constitutional officers - Commissioner of the Revenue and Treasurer - were eliminated and replaced by a county Finance Director. The responsibilities of the three other state constitutional officers - Sheriff, Commonwealth抯 Attorney, and Clerk of the Circuit Court - were not affected by changing the form of county government.

Henrico County, affected by suburban growth from Richmond, adopted the County Manager form. Albemarle County, which surrounded the City of Charlottesville, became the first in Virginia to adopt the County Executive form. Both counties saw immediate cost savings, enabling a reduction of county taxes in the iddle of the Great Depression.4

The Code of Virginia now authorizes several more options for county government, as well as the opportunity for counties to obtain a charter that can increase local governing powers.

Under the Traditional form of government used by 88 of Virginia's 95 counties, voters elect a Board of Supervisors with 3-11 members as their governing body. Supervisors may be elected from individual magisterial districts, from multi-member districts, or at-large from the entire county. The board may choose to hire a county administrator to manage day-to-day operations, or the board itself may perform those duties and rely upon a clerk to document and execute decisions.

Scott, Carroll, Russell, and Grayson counties have adopted the "County Board" form. It requires that one member be elected at-large, and requires that the Board appoint a County Administrator.

Albemarle County and Prince William County have adopted the "County Executive" form of government, and Fairfax County has an "Urban County Executive." Voters in Henrico chose the "County Manager" form, and Arlington adopted its variant of that form (now known as "County Manager Plan") back in 1930.

In counties using the "Urban County Executive" form of government, the Chair of the Board is elected specifically to that position. In all other forms, members of the board may choose their chair.

To date, no county has adopted the option of "Urban County Manager."5

Local Government Autonomy and the Dillon Rule in Virginia

The Basis for Local Government in Virginia vs. the Basis for the Federal Government

Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County, considering issuing bonds for parks and transportation projects in 2019
Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County, considering issuing bonds for parks and transportation projects in 2019



1. "Section 15.2-204. Uniform charter powers," Code of Virginia, (last checked August 20, 2017)
2. "Charters," Virginia Legislative Information System, (last checked May 8, 2019)
3. "Our Form of Government ?County Manager Plan," Arlington County, (last checked August 20, 2017)
4. George W. Spicer, "Virginia's Progress in County Government," The American Political Science Review, Volume 28, Number 6 (December, 1934), pp.1074-1078, (last checked August 20, 2017)
5. "Official Advisory Opinion 16-018 for The Honorable Sandra Gioia Treadway, Librarian of Virginia," Attorney General of Virginia, September 8 2016, (last checked August 20, 2017)

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