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California City Government Overview

Is your city a charter or general law city?

By Chris Micheli, April 29, 2019 6:23 am

The over 475 cities provide a wide range of municipal services including police, fire, parks, and libraries. The city government is headed by an elected or appointed mayor to whom department heads are responsible. The city council usually appoints a city manager to oversee the city’s services.

These cities in California are either “charter” or “general law” cities. General law cities have their powers set forth in the Government Code, while charter cities have more powers and their cities are governed by charters, which can be changed by a vote of the electorate. Incorporated cities have the power of taxation and law enforcement, as well as zoning, parks, and other municipal services.

California’s cities are provided for in Article XI, Section 3 of the state constitution, as well as the California Government Code. This also includes the process for the creation of city government. Essentially, cities in this state derive their authority from either the Government Code or from the adoption of a city charter. Pursuant to California law, there are three types of cities in this state: General law cities, charter cities and consolidated city and county.

The general law cities are governed by the Government Code. Charter cities are governed by the adoption of their respective charters; and, the consolidated city and county is a city and a county that have been merged into one jurisdiction and is governed by its own charter. San Francisco is the only consolidated city and county in California.

While counties are political subdivisions of the state, cities have greater authority than counties because they are voluntarily formed and they perform essential services which affect their citizens. The California Constitution (in Article XI) and the Government Code (in Section 34871) specify the differences between general law and charter cities.

Basically, charter cities have more autonomy in their governance because they enact local ordinances that expand their authority beyond that of the general law cities. City charters are adopted or amended in the same manner as county charters are.

Chris Micheli

Chris Micheli is a lawyer and a founder of the Sacramento-based government relations firm Aprea and Micheli. He has written for the CEB Business Law Reporter and California Tax Lawyer and many newspapers throughout the state.
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