BACKGROUND: In many countries, including New Zealand, alcohol availability and promotion have increased markedly in the last three decades as a result of liberalised central and/or state government alcohol policies. Accordingly, communities are increasingly relying on local government to manage alcohol-related problems. New Zealand's Local Government Act (2002) states the purpose of local government as facilitating public decision-making and promoting community well-being. We sought to describe public sentiment towards alcohol and local government alcohol policies. METHODS: A cross-sectional survey was conducted in 2007 with a sample of 2337 residents aged 18 years and over in a diverse set of New Zealand communities. Data were collected via a self-administered pen-and-paper questionnaire. RESULTS: There were responses from 1372 individuals (response: 59%). Problem drinking amongst youth (<25 years of age) was considered the leading problem by the majority of respondents in six of seven areas. Alcohol was considered to play a major role in incidents of violence, vandalism, dangerous driving and traffic crashes. Fifty-eight percent of respondents agreed that "it is up to local government to make sure alcohol does not become a problem in the community". There was strong support for local governments to restrict the hours of operation of on-licenced premises, to use liquor bans to control drinking in public places, and for local governments and police to be stricter in their enforcement of drinking laws. CONCLUSION: There is strong support for local government alcohol policies that restrict the availability and promotion of alcohol. The study findings are important in light of the stated purpose of local government in New Zealand and the recently completed "once in a generation" review of alcohol laws and policies.