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June 19, 2007 > Home Rule

Home Rule

By Vidya Pradhan

When the California Constitution was adopted in 1849, the state legislature was given a great deal of authority over local governments. Perhaps there was a feeling that the emerging local governments would be inexperienced or worse, likely to take advantage of their citizens. But thirty years later, bowing to calls for reform, the Constitution was amended to allow cities with populations of over 100,000 to create charters for their government, in effect, make their own constitution to govern themselves. Today out of about 477 California cities, 105 have chosen to become charter cities.

The majority of cities in California operate as 'general law' cities. The term 'general law' means that the city or town operates under the laws of the state.

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. City planning and zoning determine how land is divided into residential, commercial and parkland use.

To carry out the functions of local government, cities are granted powers by the state. The municipality, mayor or council must look to the state for the authority to pass local laws.

City government is overseen in all cities by an elected governing body (city council). Council members may be elected at large or by district. All city elections are nonpartisan

In general law cities, a council of five, seven, or nine members is elected for four-year staggered terms. The government of a general law city is vested in:
(a) A city council of at least five members.
(b) A city clerk.
(c) A city treasurer.
(d) A chief of police.
(e) A fire chief.
(f) Any subordinate officers or employees provided by law.

Two forms of administrative organization exist in California cities: the council-manager system and the mayor-council system. Most city governments operate on some modifications of these two options.

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. The council provides political leadership and makes policy while the manager directs city departments, carrying out that policy. The manager is appointed by the council and cannot be removed from office without a majority vote of the council.

Mayor-council. In most California mayor-council cities, the mayor, chosen from among the council members, is merely the city's ceremonial head. Council members and the mayor are part-time positions. A nominal sum is paid as salary to the council members. Meetings of city councils and commissions or other advisory bodies must be open to the public.

The major advantage of a general law city is that many state laws have been tested over the years and there is little confusion about how to apply them.

However, when cities see a substantial growth in population, their needs become complex. Sometimes, the umbrella provisions of the state can seem limiting and restrictive. This is where the charter comes in - Sacramento and San Jose are both charter cities (San Francisco has the unique position of being both a city and county).

The decision to become a charter city can be made either through an initiative or a call for election by the city council. Once the city has decided to become a charter city, the constitution for the city is drafted. This constitution, or charter, has to be approved by a majority of voters in the city. Any amendment to the charter or repeal of the charter is also achieved by public vote.

Chartering a city is sometimes referred to as implementing "home rule." The charter supersedes the state's general laws regarding city operations. Once a city has enacted a comprehensive charter, the only state laws that the city must follow are those which the state legislature has passed with the intent to provide uniform rule throughout the state.

City charters can be complex documents, running to hundreds of pages. Developing a charter that is appropriate for a large, diverse city takes time. Charter enactment processes typically involve many public and private meetings, drafting, and revising before a charter is presented to the voters.

Why do cities put themselves through the birth pangs of creating a charter?

Charter cities have more flexibility and local control than general law cities. These are some areas where a city charter can be more efficient:

- choosing what officers and employees the city will have;
- distributing power between city council, city manager, and mayor;
- running elections and adopting initiatives and referenda;
- structuring oversight of police departments;
- imposing taxes;
- regulating land use;
- investing public money.

A city charter helps local government deal with public concerns without continually having to request the aid of the Legislature. It provides cities with the power needed to meet the growing demands of a community.

It is up to the informed public to make a judicious decision on whether a charter style government suits their needs rather than the pro forma rules of the state legislature.

Here is the status of the cities of the greater Tri-City area:

Fremont - general law city
Union City - general law city
Milpitas - general law city
Newark - general law city
Hayward - incorporated as a charter city in 1876

For a look at what the California Government Code specifies for cities, go to sections 35000 onwards).

Editors Note: What does a charter proposal look like? Watch future editions of TCV for examples.

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