Santa Cruz church and City Hall beside (1912)

Santa Cruz church and City Hall beside (1912)

For administrative purposes, the territory of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is divided into municipalities. This territorial unit has been in use since the early-days of the Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico and was maintained after Spain ceded the territory to the United States through the Treaty of Paris, which entered into effect on April 11, 1899. The act of founding a municipality was separate from the founding of a town. During the days of Spanish sovereignty, a town was founded when a church was built and a parish priest was appointed. The authorities were notified so that the town would be recognized, but that did not mean that the town became a municipality since the political administrative structure was not automatically established.

The municipality is the primary legal subdivision in Puerto Rico, and may include urban and suburban areas under the same government unit, according to the United States Census Bureau. The municipality is equivalent to a county in a state of the United States. At present Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities. The most populated of these are San Juan, the administrative and political capital, Bayamón, Caguas, Toa Baja, Trujillo Alto, Cataño, Arecibo, Ponce, Mayagüez, Carolina, Aguadilla, and Guaynabo.

The Puerto Rico Autonomous Municipalities Act was passed in 1991, and the category of “autonomous municipality” has gradually substituted the classification of “municipality.” This change in nomenclature has been accompanied by a progressive transformation of municipal government. The objective is to lessen the distance between the decision-making process and the residents of each area while reducing the size of the central government of the island. This process is regulated and guided by an agency of the central government called the Office of the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs (OCAM,

According to Public Law 81, enacted on August 30, 1991, and amended in October 2004, an autonomous municipality is “a geographical territory with all of its wards, having a particular name, under a local government comprised of a legislative branch and executive branch.” This definition in fact describes all of the municipalities of the island, but before a municipality is allowed to add the word “autonomous” to its official name, there are certain requirements that must be complied with under the Act. At present less than one third of the Commonwealth municipalities, 24 of the 78 that exist today, have included the word “autonomous” in their official names. The first to do so were Ponce (November 6, 1992), Carolina (December 30, 1992), Bayamón (November 14, 1994), Cabo Rojo (June 2, 1996), Caguas (July 30, 1998), San Sebastián (October 28, 1998), Morovis (October 30, 1999), and Guaynabo (December 15, 1999). In 2000 they were followed by San Germán (June 14), Aguadilla (September 21), Canóvanas (September 21), Cidra (September 27), Sabana Grande (November 10), and Vieques (December 20). By now, the following have already added the term: Santa Isabel (July 18, 2001), Lares (April 29, 2002), Barceloneta (August 27, 2002), Manatí (October 23, 2002), Humacao (by Resolution in 2002), Ciales (October 9, 2002), Jayuya (May 12, 2003), San Juan (May 29, 2003) and Villalba (September 30, 2004). Moca (May 13, 2004) is the most recent autonomous municipality.

Caparra, ruins, Guaynabo

Caparra, ruins, Guaynabo

A traditional municipality must complete certain proceedings in order to achieve formal autonomy. Approval must be obtained for a local land use master plan and a strategic environmental impact statement approved by the Puerto Rico Planning Board ( Once a municipality has complied with these requirements, the Planning Board of the Government of Puerto Rico submits a petition for municipal autonomy for approval by the governor in an Executive Order. This approval enters into effect only when the municipality receives the official document. When the designation has become official, a second stage is begun in which efforts are made to achieve full autonomy and the local governments request the transfer of powers from the central government.

Currently, only five municipalities of Puerto Rico have obtained all the powers allowed under the law: Bayamón, Carolina, Caguas, Guaynabo, and Ponce. Aguadilla, Cidra, and Cabo Rojo are in the process of acquiring these powers.

Public Law 81, and its amendments, allows the municipalities to freely administer local assets, and related issues, such as the free use and investment of municipal revenues. In addition, the municipalities are charged with preparing informative materials to be distributed elsewhere,planing land use, indicating the location and operation of street vendors,and overseeing enforcement. The law maintains traditional municipal powers such as the administration of traditional markets, the municipal police, emergency management, waste disposal, cemeteries, and control of stray animals. The municipal government exercises these powers through ordinances, resolutions, and regulations. These municipal regulations are in effect indefinitely and may only be suspended or set aside in a court of competent jurisdiction.

Whether they are officially autonomous or not, all municipalities are legal entities that are subordinate to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The central government determines the basic structure of the executive and legislative branches of the municipalities. Every four years the residents vote for the chief executive and the town council members. The size of the population is the criterion used to determine the size and complexity of the executive branch and the number of council members.

The execute branch includes at least the following: the Office of the Mayor; (Office of the Municipal Clerk; Office Municipal Finance); Department of Public Works; Human Resources Office; Internal Auditor, Emergency Management Office; and the Municipal Federal Affairs Office. All of these entities, except the last, report directly to the mayor. The Municipal Emergency Management Office reports to the state-level Emergency Management Office. In some municipalities there are additional administrative bodies given the size of the population and the availability of sufficient financial resources.

The legislative branch must be comprised of at least five council members, depending on the number of residents. The State Electoral Commission of the central government of the Commonwealth is the only body authorized to revise the number of members, which may be done every ten years, based on the results of the US Census. Municipalities with a population of less than 20,000 elect twelve members; those with a population of 20 to 40,000 elect fourteen; and those with a population of over 40,000 elect sixteen. The exceptions to this rule are the city councils of the Capital and the municipality of Culebra. In San Juan there are seventeen elected members of the city council, and in Culebra there are five.

Arecibo Observatory

Arecibo Observatory

The Commonwealth Constitution frequently groups municipalities in providing for the legislative branch of the central government. The Constitution reads, “[…]Puerto Rico shall be divided into eight senatorial districts and forty representative districts. Each senatorial district shall elect two Senators and each representative district one Representative. There shall also be eleven Senators and eleven Representatives elected at large.”

Consequently, a given senator represents the residents of many municipalities and a representative to the House represents a slightly smaller territory or a single municipality. The district of Arecibo is a case in point for these two ways of grouping municipalities. The District Senator represents the residents of the municipalities of Vega Baja, Vega Alta, Dorado, Manatí, Barceloneta, Ciales, Morovis, Arecibo, and Utuado. In that same region, one representative to the House is charged with representing the interests of Vega Baja, Vega Alta and Dorado, another for those of Manatí and Barceloneta, a third for those of Ciales and Morovis, while the fourth represents the residents of Arecibo and the fifth only represents Utuado.

The municipalities also choose to organize groups that are not established constitutionally. Some of these are based on partisan politics and others are based on an interest in stimulating regional economic development. There are island-level, national, and international organizations.

There are two mayors’ associations, the Puerto Rico Mayors Association and the Puerto Rico Mayors Federation. The Association includes municipalities whose mayors belong to the Popular Democratic Party, one of the two principal political parties on the island. The first woman mayor of the Capital, San Juan, Felisa Rincón de Gautier founded the Association in 1947. In 2003 the mayors of Aibonito, Aguas Buenas, Barceloneta, Caguas, Carolina, Cayey, Ceiba, Coamo, Comerío, Dorado, Guánica, Guayama, Guayanilla, Hatillo, Hormigueros, Humacao, Isabela, Jayuya, Juana Díaz, Juncos, Lajas, Maunabo, Mayagüez, Naguabo, Naranjito, Peñuelas, Ponce, Quebradillas, Río Grande, Rincón, Sabana Grande, San Germán, San Lorenzo, Trujillo Alto, Vieques, and Villalba belonged to the Association. According to its members, the mission of this group is to:

  1. Serve municipal governments by working with the Legislature, Puerto Rico and federal government agencies, and any entity that can assist the municipalities in finding solutions for the problems of our communities and enhancing autonomous powers.
  2. Promote all such activities and programs as may improve the general well being of the municipalities represented by the Association.
  3. Promote and implement the Autonomous Municipalities Act.

The Puerto Rico Mayors Federation is a similar group of municipalities whose mayors belong to the New Progressive Party, the other principal political party of the island.

Some of the mayors also belong to the US Conference of Mayors. This non-partisan national organization is comprised of the chief elected official of communities with more than 30,000 residents and includes 1,139 towns and cities. The mission of the Conference is to “Promote the development of effective national urban/suburban policy; strengthen federal-city relationships; ensure that federal policy meets urban needs; provide mayors with leadership and management tools; and create a forum in which mayors can share ideas and information”.

University of Puerto Rico in Cayey

University of Puerto Rico in Cayey

Faced with a globalized world and focusing on the social and economic development of the region, in recent years the mayors on the island have developed alliances beyond party lines with a view to fostering economic development in their municipalities. Two of these alliances are the Central-East Technological Initiative, known by its initials in Spanish, INTECO and the Technological Initiative for the North, known by its initials in Spanish, INTENOR.

INTECO began in September of 2003 with the objective of improving the quality of life for residents of the central-eastern region. The organization is comprised of the autonomous municipalities of Caguas and Humacao, and the municipalities of Cayey, Gurabo, Juncos, and Las Piedras. They have been joined by universities and private enterprise in fostering the development of science and research, marketing innovative technology, encouraging local industry, creating new enterprises, and stimulating commercial activity in general. The universities that are involved in this regional municipal alliance include the Ana G. Méndez University System (SUAGM), the regional colleges at Cayey and Humacao of the University of Puerto Rico, and the members of the Caguas Technological College Network (Huertas Junior College, Columbia College, EDIC College, and Mech-Tech, Inc.). The central government is represented in this alliance by the Department of Economic Development and Commerce. Local and international private enterprise members of INTECO include Manufacturing Technology Services, Inc. (MTS), Microsoft Caribbean, Avant Technologies of Puerto Rico Inc., NYPRO Puerto Rico, Inc., Aireko, Amgen, Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, Medtronic, Janssen Ortho, LLC, Centennial de Puerto Rico, Softek, Hewlett-Packard, Sony de Puerto Rico, Executrain, and VERNET.

INTECO strives to foster interest in science and technology while developing an entrepreneurial culture among the residents of the central-eastern region. The organization uses educational programs for high school students such as Smart Teens, Microsoft Unlimited Potential, and Gear Up. Microsoft offers high school students the opportunity to become certified in the use of Microsoft™ Word, Excel, Power Point, Outlook as a Microsoft Office Specialist- MOS. In Caguas and Juncos the Smart Teens programs offer an introduction and practice in mechanical engineering, computer assisted design (CAD), manufacturing, electronic engineering, computer engineering, and entrepreneurship. These projects are located at Technological Innovation Centers. In Caguas, Juncos, Humacao, Cayey, Gurabo, San Lorenzo, Naguabo, and Las Piedras efforts are being made to close the digital gap by providing access to all residents of the participating municipalities with computers and broadband Internet access.

In addition, INTECO is working on a regional database, a regional technological park, and support for research and development centers. A program called EMPRENDE provides resources and services to support budding entrepreneurs. A plasma technology research center is being established at the Turabo University with guidance from manufacturers located in the region.

INTENOR is another regional alliance that was created based on the INTECO model. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the economic development and growth of the northern area of Puerto Rico. The municipalities of Arecibo, Barceloneta, Manatí, Vega Alta, Vega Baja, Dorado, Ciales, Morovis, and Florida belong to the alliance. Partners in the alliance include the Ana G. Méndez University System, the Puerto Rico Manufacturers” Association and a coalition of pharmaceutical companies comprising Abbott Laboratories, Aventis, Pfizer, BASF Group, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD Puerto Rico).

INTENOR fosters training, the expansion of new technologies, and education in technological, economic, and other subjects that will promote economic development. INTENOR’s agenda includes the development of entrepreneurial incubators in support of the pharmaceutical industry; establishing a biotechnology plant, small enterprises in the area, and a business-development center; and creating a regional office for processing permits with the Central Government. A Center for Excellence in the Advancement of Technology to educate professionals for pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry in the region is being established and is known as CETA.

INTENOR plans to create centers for pharmaceuticals and bio-science, medical devices and health services; design and construction; automobile sales, financing; fashion and personal services; hotels and restaurants, along with golf and beach clubs; and professional and corporate or business support services.

Porta Coeli Chuch-Museum

Porta Coeli Chuch-Museum

These development initiatives in the municipalities and current legislation directed at stimulating autonomy are reminiscent of the early Spanish colonization. The municipalities and their mayors and the cabildo or municipal council were the cornerstone of the settlement and organization for the conquest of the Indies. Power was meted out from the central Peninsular government, but in daily life the conquistadors made many decisions while they waited for an official response to their petitions.

At the outset of Spanish colonization, the island was known as San Juan and there were two royal-charted towns, Caparra and Tavora or Tavara. It is possible that Juan Ponce de León appointed the first municipal council or cabildo de Puerto Rico so that it could swear him in as governor. Queen Juana, daughter of the Catholic Monarchs, assumed that there were municipalities with their own local governments, when in March of 1510 she proclaimed and ordered:

“To you, the councils, gentlemen, knights, and good people of the towns that now exist on the Island of San Juan and may exist in the future …Know ye … that it is my wish that Juan Ponce de León, be…our Captain of said island,…with jurisdiction on civil and criminal matters, and the mayoralty and constabulary thereof… for which I order you to take this oath which is customary to take in such case …”.

The names of the first members of the municipal governments in Puerto Rico date from 1510. All of then were appointed, rather than elected, because the governor was empowered to do so for more than three hundred years. The mayor of the island of San Juan was Cristóbal de Sotomayor, scion of the Earl of Caminha, who had provoked the rebellion of the indigenous people in 1511. Sotomayor was the regular mayor of Villa de Caparra and Fernando de Morales, Pedro de Avila, and Francisco Robledo were the aldermen. Antonio de Miranda and Fernando de Herrera were representatives of the people, the procuradores for the other settlement, Tavora or Villa de Sotomayor.

After the burning and subsequent disappearance of the Villa de Sotomayor, in 1512, Miguel Díaz Aux founded a third town on the northwest side of the island, which also had its own local government. This was established by the order of Diego Colón, the son of the Admiral Cristopher Columbus, and was finally moved to its current location in 1565. For their part, the residents of Villa de Caparra moved to the present day municipality of Guaynabo or the municipality of San Juan, specifically to the islet where the governor’s mansion, the capitol, and the state supreme court are located.

During the first three hundred years of the Spanish colony, the members of the San Juan and San Germán cabildos made decisions on daily affairs. Even under the administration of the Columbus family, thanks to their efforts in the courts of law, the councilmen retained this power. In 1534, in a power of attorney awarded to Asensio de Villanueva to represent the San Juan Cabildo before Charles V and the Supreme Council, they state:
“Know ye who see this letter, that We, as Councilmen, Magistrates, and Aldermen for this island of San Juan of the West Indies of the Ocean Sea, having met at our town hall, as is our custom, are: Francisco Manuel de Lando, Lieutenant Governor of this island appointed by the illustrious and magnificent Don Luis Colón, Admiral, Viceroy and Governor of these parts for your Majesties, and Diego de Cuellar, and Francisco Mejías, regular mayors of this city for your Majesties, and Baltasar de Castro y García Troche and Pedro de Espinosa and Alonso de la Fuente, aldermen for this city…”.

At first, the San Juan Council was comprised of eight councilmen and two regular mayors. In 1523, the number was reduced to six by Royal Degree. In San Germán there were fewer councilmen. While he was governor of Puerto Rico, from 1520 – 1526, Diego Colón ordered the election of mayors. He ordered “…and in our name, the towns should elect and appoint them, as has been done until now …”. He also ordered the appointment of aldermen or councilmen based on the recommendation of three people given to whoever the representative was on the island at the time of the vacancy. When the Columbus family lost control over the island, 1537-1544, the regular mayors who were elected every year in each municipality governed their respective territories. There was no central authority to unite them, nor laws that were common to the island as a whole. The two existing municipalities had total and absolute autonomy. Residents moved from one municipality to the other when they wanted to evade some law in particular. During this period, those who wanted a central government debated the desirability of appointing a foreigner or electing a resident of the island from among the settlers.

El Capitolio

El Capitolio

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the positions of alderman or councilman could be “sold and renounced” and were offered on the open market. Sebastián González de Mirabal and his descendants, for example, were councilmen in San Germán during most of the 17th century until the close of the century.

The territorial boundaries were clearly defined since the end of the 16th century. As recounted in the first geographical description of Puerto Rico, the Memoria de Melgarejo, the dividing line ran from north to south, and in the 16th century several sparsely settled villages such as Coamo, Ponce and Arecibo were grouped in each of the two municipalities. If the residents of Puerto Rico had obeyed the Royal Decree of January 14, 1778, the jurisdictional division would have ended that year. In the royal decree the Crown ordered that the island be divided into five municipalities. The category of royal chartered town with a respective town council would be granted to the old settlement of San Francisco de la Aguada, Arecibo, and Coamo. The district or municipality of Aguada would include the villages of Manatí, Utuado, and San Antonio de la Tuna (at present, Isabela). The district or municipality of Arecibo would include the settlements of Aguadilla, Moca, El Pepino, and Rincón. The district or municipality of Coamo would include Ponce, Guayama and Cayey. This royal order was never enforced, as the Puerto Rican historian Aida Caro Costas has ascertained.

Until the early 19th century there were only two municipalities in Puerto Rico, San Juan and San Germán, with several settlements and villages that depended on each of these two. Other urban centers that did not have a town council were Mayagüez, where there were fifty dwellings, Añasco, where there were 139, and Río Piedras, Caguas, Toa Baja, Loíza, and Fajardo each having ten or fewer dwellings, surrounding a church. Most of the residents of the island were spread out all over in the cattle ranches and farms, but they would come into these centers on Sundays or for holidays such as Christmas and Holy Week.

Decisions made in the San Juan and San Germán councils from early on were related to road repair, public health, street cleaning, maintenance and cleanliness of the dwellings in the towns, and measures to keep public order. They issued permits for fishing with traps; price controls for basic commodities such as meat; weights and measures for foodstuffs such as casaba, rice, and corn. Cutting down palm trees and fruit trees was prohibited as was the mistreatment of animals. The councils fostered raising animals, such as pigs, as well as the general economic welfare and progress of the residents, and determined where the various kinds of buildings could be constructed, among other matters.

The records of the municipal councils reflect the aspirations and actions of the residents of each region. In the early 16th century, the council of the Villa de San Germán requested that the mine be commonly-held property and that the residents of their municipality be allowed to extract gold in the municipality or district of the city of Puerto Rico. The San Juan Council levied a tax of one percent on merchandise, to fund public works such as the construction of a bridge. The council requested loans from the royal treasury, so that the residents could finance the construction of stone dwellings. They reported the need for a small float so that products could be imported and sugar and hides could be exported. The council ordered a temporary moratorium on debts to improve the financial situation of the municipality and retained Sebastián Rodr ίguez, and others, to represent them before the Council of the Indies with a view to obtaining benefits for the island.

The San Juan or City of Puerto Rico Council requested and obtained from the King the power to grant loans to encourage the sugar industry as a substitute for mining, which was in decline, to salvage the economy of the island. Rodrigo Franques, a sugar mill owner in Loíza, was the first beneficiary of these loans. In 1540 he was granted a loan to build the facilities to grind the sugar cane on his farm, which measured some 12,000 montones.




Author: Dra. Mercedes Casablanca
Published: September 02, 2010.

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