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California’s 58 Counties are Political Subdivisions of the State

County Government Overview

By Chris Micheli, April 26, 2019 6:11 am

The 58 counties, which cover the entire state, are deemed “political subdivisions of the state” under the California Constitution and they provide services on behalf of the state, such as health and human service programs, as well as countywide services including law enforcement, property assessments, and elections. Counties are authorized to have taxing and police powers.

Counties in this state are provided for under the state constitution and the California Government Code. Primarily, the Legislature has provided counties with corporate powers that are required to provide for the health and welfare of the general public within their respective counties. The Legislature is viewed as having broader control over counties versus cities. Also, counties generally lack the broad revenue-raising power that cities possess.

There are thirteen charter counties, while the others are general law counties. They are governed by five-member, elected boards of supervisors (except San Francisco with an 11-member board as it is both a city and a county). Almost all are elected by district, except in a few counties. These boards have quasi-legislative, quasi-judicial, and executive authority over their respective counties.

They, in turn, utilize executives to manage the county’s functions. The main executive of a county is its Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). This title may vary slightly among the counties, but the role is essentially identical and this individual oversees the day-to-day operations of the county and the employees.

In all counties, the district attorneys, assessors and sheriffs are elected countywide and most counties also elect their treasurers. There are a number of other positions help in county government throughout the state. For example, in 54 of the 58 counties, the auditor-controller is an elected office for specified services. Many of the county clerks are also elected locally.

Some of the other key positions in county government include: County counsel to provide legal services; environmental health departments; information technology to provide IT goods and services; planning department to carry out planning functions; probation departments for adult and juvenile offenders; public defenders for indigent offenders; public works departments for county infrastructure; and, social services for public assistance.

Chris Micheli

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He is also an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.
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