- What are the general functions of a city?
- What powers do cities have? Where do they get these powers?
- What are general law cities? What are charter cities?
- How do cities become incorporated? What is the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO)?
- How does a charter get written or modified?
- Can a city disincorporate? How?
- How does a city change its boundaries or annex more land?
Functions of City Government
- Who governs a city? What is a city council? How are its members chosen?
- How is the city administered? What are the roles of the city council, the mayor, and the city manager?
- What agencies are responsible for developing plans?
- What is the role of a planning commission? Who sets and enforces building standards?
- What is the process for urban renewal or redevelopment?
- How are boards and commissions formed and what are their powers?
- What does a civil service or personal board do?
- What does a park and recreation commission do?
- Do cities work with the other levels of government?
- What is the legal and financial relationship between cities and counties?
- What is the legal and financial relationship between cities and the state?
- What is the relationship between cities and the federal government?
City governments are responsible for providing services which directly affect the lives of their residents. Through fire and police protection, cities safeguard lives and property. They also construct and maintain streets, provide facilities for sewage, storm drainage, and waste disposal, and look after health, recreational and social needs. Most cities provide water; some provide public transportation systems; a few manage municipal utilities such as electricity or natural gas. City planning and zoning determine land use compatible with community economic, environmental, and cultural goals.
To carry out the functions of local government, cities are granted powers by the state. City governments may legislate to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their people, provided that these regulations are not in conflict with state or federal law. They may generate revenue by levying taxes, by license and service fees, and by borrowing. They may employ needed personnel. They may condemn property for public use.
While their powers are derived from the state constitution and from laws enacted by the legislature, cities themselves are created only by the request and consent of the residents in a given area. Communities may incorporate as cities for many reasons--to control population growth and development, to gain local control of tax money, to provide services, to promote special interests, to solve specific problems, to provide a more responsive unit of government or to prevent annexation to adjoining cities.
All 468 California cities are municipal corporations. Their formation is provided for in the state constitution, and they fall into three categories: general law cities (more than four out of five cities in California), charter cities, and one consolidated city and county (San Francisco).
General law cities derive their powers from and organize their governments according to acts of the legislature. The fundamental law of these cities is found in the state Government Code, which enumerates their powers and specifies their structure. Charter cities are formed when citizens specifically frame and adopt a charter or document to establish the organization and basic law of the city. The constitution guarantees to these charter cities a large measure of "home rule," granting to them, independent of the legislature, direct control over local affairs. There are 83 charter cities in California.
The basic difference between general law and charter cities is found in the degree of control which the state government may exercise over them. Charter cities have more freedom to innovate and to pass ordinances according to local need. General law cities nevertheless also have considerable choice in their form of municipal government, and fairly broad powers over local affairs. Because the legislature has tended to give general law cities the same control over internal matters that the constitution grants to charter cities, the original distinction between the two forms of city authority has been somewhat blurred.
Incorporation may be initiated by resolution of a county board of supervisors or by citizen petition. The petition must be signed by at least 25 percent of the locally registered voters. A petition by landowners is possible, but rare. The petition is then submitted to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which reviews the proposed plan for incorporation (a feasibility study of boundaries, service provision, and potential revenues), conducts a hearing, and then, frequently after suggesting changes, approves or denies the proposal. If the petition is approved, the board of supervisors conducts a hearing. If a majority of the voters file written protests, the board must terminate the procedures. If there is no majority protest, the board must call an election. The incorporation must be approved by a majority of the voters living within the proposed city. If the vote is against incorporation, no proceedings to incorporate any of the same territory may be started for another two years.
After incorporation, a city may adopt a charter. Either an initiative petition or the governing body may call for an election to determine whether to draft or revise the charter and to elect a charter commission (the governing body may also serve in this capacity). When drafted, a charter must be approved by majority vote of the electorate. Amendment or repeal of a charter may be proposed either by the city council or by initiative, and adopted by majority vote of the electorate.
The question of disincorporation must be considered by a city council if petitioned by 20 percent of the city's voters. A majority of those voting in a special election determines the outcome. No city has disincorporated since 1972.
Annexation and consolidation procedures parallel those for incorporation. Any land area contiguous to a city in the same county may be annexed to the city if such annexation does not result in an island of unincorporated land completely surrounded by the city or in narrow strips of unincorporated land. (Because earlier law did not prohibit them, such islands currently exist in some cities.) In rare cases, LAFCO can make an exception.
Proponents of an annexation must have the approval of LAFCO and the governing body. In inhabited territory (with at least 12 voters), a petition signed by 25 percent of the qualified voters is filed with LAFCO. If LAFCO approves, then the city council calls a public hearing. If there is protest a special election is called. Annexation requires majority approval within the annexation area. Proposals for annexing uninhabited territory may be initiated by either the annexing city or the owners of the land. No election is held. If approved by LAFCO, the annexation occurs automatically, unless a protest is made by 50 percent or more of the owners of land and improvements in the area. A city cannot decline an annexation approved by LAFCO and not sufficiently protested, unless the annexation is very large relative to the city. Then an election is required.
Two or more cities may consolidate, but a city may not be annexed by, or consolidated with, another without majority approval of voters of both cities.
Functions of City Government
City government is overseen in all cities by an elected governing body (city council) which establishes municipal policy and enacts and implements local ordinances. Council members may be elected at large or by district, or in charter cities may be nominated and elected in any manner stated in the charter. All city elections are nonpartisan. In most cities except for very large ones, the council members and the mayor are part-time positions. The constitution gives the voters in all cities the right to exercise the initiative and referendum, and to recall elected officers. Meetings of city councils and commissions or other advisory bodies must be open to the public.
In general law cities, a council of five, seven, or nine members is elected for four-year staggered terms. If the mayor is elected directly instead of being chosen by fellow council members, the term of office is two or four years, as determined by popular vote. The city clerk and treasurer also serve four-year terms. The chief of police and other department level heads are appointed by the city council or the city manager under merit system procedures.
Charter cities exhibit great variety in organization, being free to make any desired allocation of duties, powers, and functions between elective and appointive city officers. Charters may also provide for subgovernments in all or part of a city.
Two forms of administrative organization exist in California cities: the council-manager system and the mayor-council system. By modification and overlap these basic forms provide varied patterns of city government.
Council-manager. Three-fourths of California cities have some form of centralized professional administration. The administrator may be called a city manager, city administrator, or chief administrative officer. Under this type of administration, the elected council provides political leadership and makes policy, while a full-time professional manager directs city departments in carrying out that policy.
Mayor-council. In most California mayor-council cities, usually small general law communities, the mayor, chosen from among the council members, is merely the council's presiding officer and the city's ceremonial head. The council has substantial administrative as well as legislative power, with all department heads reporting directly to the council. This is the weak-mayor system. A number of cities, usually very large ones, use the strong-mayor system, though their charters set limits on how strong the mayor can be. In these cases the mayor is directly elected by the people. A chief administrative officer or general manager is in most matters responsible directly to the mayor, but may not be removed without the consent of the council. Top-level authority over some matters may be vested in independent boards or in elected officials. Under this system, the mayor's administrative authority depends in large part on his or her ability to elicit cooperation.
Municipal planning agencies are established in most cities and consist of a planning commission, the city council, a professional planning department, or a combination. All California cities must develop a general plan, consider environmental impact reports, and periodically review their capital improvements program.
The planning commission also has major responsibility for adoption and administration of zoning laws. The city council may, however, appoint a special board of zoning adjustment or an administrator to decide, subject to council review, on applications for conditional use or for variance from zoning requirements. Otherwise the planning commission itself acts on these matters, subject to council approval.
While the planning commission may also be concerned with the city's building regulations, sometimes a separate building commission formulates local building standards and approves applications for building permits.
Although renewal projects to clear and rebuild or rehabilitate blighted areas are determined locally, state law details the procedures to be used. A city may activate a redevelopment agency or local housing authority by an ordinance declaring the need for urban renewal or a housing program. Redevelopment is a big business in California, with nearly $4 billion in annual revenues. Over 90 percent of the medium and large sized cities use redevelopment agencies. Their extraordinary powers, including eminent domain, often attract considerable controversy. The state constitution requires that local voters approve any public low-rent housing development before it may be undertaken.
Many city functions are overseen by various city boards and commissions, most of which are advisory to the city council. Some, however, are given quasi-judicial or limited administrative powers, subject to appeal to the council. Some city charters specifically establish citizen boards as part of the city administration, with independent authority and control of funds in their areas of operation.
Advisory boards or committees may be established by special ordinance, with their tasks reflecting community concerns. These bodies gather information on issues, hear arguments, weigh values, and recommend action to the council. Such boards may be permanent or may be assigned only one specific task. Except in very small communities, permanent commissions usually have the assistance of professional and clerical staff.
Besides the planning commission, some cities have a civil service or personnel board and probably a park and recreation commission. Cities may establish many other bodies such as a youth board, a solid waste management board, a traffic commission, an airport or harbor commission, or an art or historical commission.
A civil service or personnel board sets or recommends policy on employee compensation and working conditions, subject to state law. It hears appeals and grievances relating to city employment Administration of a merit system for hiring and promoting is usually in the hands of a personnel director who works with the commission.
A park and recreation commission may be established to promote understanding among racial, religious, and age groups. Although these bodies are advisory, some play active roles in their communities. While they vary greatly in size, funding, and powers, a few have subpoena and hearing powers.
Cities do not stand alone. As part of an interlocking, governmental system, they have responsibilities to, and are affected by the actions of other levels of government, and work in cooperation with them on issues of concern to city residents.
Cities and counties have very strong ties. Cities benefit from county assessment rolls and county tax collection services. A county may provide money for city street construction that benefits the county's road system. The two jurisdictions often cooperate in building and operating parks, libraries, and other public facilities. City and county fire and law enforcement officers work together under mutual aid agreements, usually established for emergency situations.
The link between cities and counties is further strengthened by a constitutional provision permitting the legislature to require counties to perform specified services at the request of the cities within them.
The Joint Exercise of Powers Act is the legal basis for extensive contracting at the option of any two or more governmental units. To share costs, avoid duplicate efforts, or secure better facilities, cities often cooperate with other cities under this act, and frequently contract with special districts or counties for the purchase of services. In Los Angeles County such city-county contracts cover fire protection, law enforcement, jails, building inspection, personnel services, street sweeping, lighting, libraries, hospitals, animal control, and weed abatement. While the Los Angeles basin is the major location of such "contract" cities (cities that contract for nearly all services), selective contracting out is now widespread, especially since Proposition 13 in 1978. Cities contracting with their counties for most of their municipal services are said to operate under the Lakewood Plan.
All citizens, whether living in unincorporated territory or in cities, are subject to state law. City police enforce state laws along with municipal ordinances.
While city governments may affect local or municipal affairs, there are important limitations on their power to do so. Passage of local legislation must avoid conflicts with state law, and the state preempts power in issues of statewide concern. Local ordinances may not authorize acts prohibited by state statute, nor prohibit acts specifically authorized by the legislature.
Local ordinances are not applicable to state agencies unless the state consents--for example, the state consents to administer local sales taxes.
State preemption over local ordinance takes place in cases where the state is deemed to have broader authority in the field. For instance, by adopting the California Vehicle Code, the legislature has precluded cities from enacting their own traffic regulations except as expressly authorized in the state code. Cities are also preempted in the field of narcotics law and alcohol beverage control, with no exceptions. In many decisions the courts have invalidated local regulations based on their finding that the Legislature had the intent to preempt the field in question.
The state also sets standards in areas affecting the public health, safety, welfare, and environment. Although cities are allowed to exceed state standards, when a minimum standard is set by the state it is applicable to all cities. Exceptions are allowed in some instances--for example, in state building code requirements they are found necessary because of local conditions.
Cities receive substantial sums of money raised by the state from tax levies. The state also assesses the property of public utilities of local tax rolls. Special taxes must be expended for state or local purposes as specified by the legislature. For instance, gas tax funds must be used for construction and maintenance of city streets or for mass transit purposes. Vehicle fines must be spent for traffic control and traffic law enforcement.
The state also affects city government by granting or withholding funds, or prohibiting certain kinds of local taxation. Passage of the statewide initiative Proposition 13 in 1978 severely limited cities' ability to raise revenue based on property taxes. Cities may qualify for state grants for certain purposes.
A city may contract with the state for personnel services. Employees of many cities participate in the state system of retirement benefits.
Because of the nature of the American governmental system, the federal government has little direct control over municipalities. Nevertheless, via the state or regional bodies, money from federal agencies reach local governments in the form of grants. Cities also benefit from direct federal grants and loans for community facilities and mass transportation, and from federal funding of redevelopment and housing agencies. Some federal control over cities is exerted through the criteria established for federal funding. Through these requirements the federal government may promote nondiscriminatory housing, environmental improvement, and citizen participation in governmental decision making.