A County and Seat by Any Other Name...
Alaska and the state of Louisiana are the only states that do not call their first-order administrative subdivisions counties, and other states don't have administrative centers or call them different things. I wondered about that and dug in further (so you don't have to), finding out even more fun facts in the process!
Louisiana is divided into 64 parishes (French: paroisses, Spanish: parroquias), which are essentially the same as counties. Louisiana's usage of the term "parish" for a geographic region or local government dates back to the Spanish colonial and French colonial periods.
Thirty-eight parishes are governed by a council called a Police Jury. The remaining 26 have various other forms of government, including: council-president, council-manager, parish commission, and consolidated parish/city.
Alaska is divided into 19 organized boroughs and one Unorganized Borough, with a total of 20 in all. (Louisiana uses parishes instead). Delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention wanted to avoid the traditional county system and adopted their own unique model with different classes of boroughs varying in powers and duties.
Many of the most densely populated regions of the state are part of Alaska's boroughs, which function similarly to counties in other states. There are four different classes of organized boroughs: "Unified Home Rule" (may exercise all legislative powers not prohibited by law or charter); "Non-unified Home Rule"; "First Class" (may exercise any power not prohibited by law on a non-area wide basis by adopting ordinances); and "Second Class" (must gain voter approval for authority to exercise many non-area wide powers).
However, unlike county-equivalents in the other 49 states, the organized boroughs do not cover the entire land area of the state. The area not part of any organized borough is referred to as the Unorganized Borough. The U.S. Census Bureau, in cooperation with the state, divides the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas, each roughly corresponding to an election district, thus totaling 30 county equivalents. However, these areas exist solely for the purposes of statistical analysis and presentation; they have no government of their own. Boroughs and census areas are both treated as county-level equivalents by the Census Bureau.
This vast area has no local government other than that of school districts, municipalities, and tribal village governments. Except within some incorporated cities, all government services in the Unorganized Borough, including law enforcement, are provided by the state or by a tribal government.
Six consolidated city-borough governments exist—Juneau City and Borough, Skagway Municipality, Sitka City and Borough, Yakutat City and Borough, Wrangell City and Borough, as well as the state's largest city, Anchorage. Though its legal name is the Municipality of Anchorage, it is considered a consolidated city-borough under state law.
Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine's Shire Towns
Grouped together here, the states of Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine have several counties that have dissolved their county-level government and in these areas have "shire towns" instead of county seats.
Virginia's Independent Cities
Looking at a county map of Virginia, you'll see small dots surrounded by what looks like a regular county - this is because many cities are independently governed and carved out from the remainder of the county in which they sit. And it isn't one or two, there's 38 of them!
These Independent cities legally belong to no county. They differ from consolidated city-counties in that in the case of a consolidated city-county, the county at least nominally exists, whereas in the case of an independent city, no county even nominally exists.There are 3 other independent cities outside of VA: such cities in the United States: Baltimore, Carson City, and St Louis.
Yes, we know that DC is always its own thing. It's the nation's capitol. It's its own county seat. It's not a state, etc, etc.
What It All Means
These different styles of government are great reminders that as the country was forming, not everyone agreed on how things should run. It is OK for states to handle things differently than each other, and for counties to be treated differently based on population or the differences between city and rural life.
In terms of the County Seat Project, I'll be visiting the Parish & Borough Seats as well as the Independent Cities just like I would any county. As for Alaska's Unorganized Borough, I'll take just stepping foot into it as a win! If I get all the other counties visited, then I'll do a final (expensive!) victory lap through the largest town in each of the 12 census areas with population numbers ranging from 18,500 - 2,300.
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