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Local government in California

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

California has an extensive and complicated system of local government that manages public functions throughout the state. Like most states, California is divided into counties, of which there are 58 (including San Francisco)[note 1] covering the entire state. Most urbanized areas are incorporated as cities,[note 2] though not all of California is within the boundaries of a city. School districts, which are independent of cities and counties, handle public education. Many other functions, especially in unincorporated areas, are handled by special districts, which include municipal utility districts, transit districts, vector control districts, and geologic hazard abatement districts.

Due to geographical variations in property tax and sales tax revenue (the primary revenue source for cities and counties) and differing attitudes towards priorities, there are variations in the levels of various services from one city to the next.

Article 2, Section 6, of California's constitution provides that elections for county, city, school, and judicial offices are officially non-partisan and political party affiliations are not included on local election ballots.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • Federalism: Crash Course Government and Politics #4
  • Improving Local Public Transit in California
  • California Government and Challenges of the 21st Century
  • A Way Forward for Local Government


Hi, I'm Craig and this is Crash Course Government and Politics. Today we're going to talk about a fundamental concept to American government, federalism. Sorry. I'm not sorry. You're not even endangered anymore. So federalism is a little confusing because it includes the word, "federal," as in federal government, which is what we use to describe the government of the United States as a whole. Which is kind of the opposite of what we mean when we say federalism. Confused? Google it. This video will probably come up. And then just watch this video. Or, just continue watching this video. [Intro] So what is federalism? Most simply, it's the idea that in the US, governmental power is divided between the government of the United States and the government of the individual states. The government of the US, the national government, is sometimes called the federal government, while the state governments are just called the state governments. This is because technically the US can be considered a federation of states. But this means different things to different people. For instance, federation of states means ham sandwich to me. I'll have one federation of states, please, with a side of tater tots. Thank you. I'm kind of dumb. In the federal system, the national government takes care of some things, like for example, wars with other countries and delivering the mail, while the state government takes care of other things like driver's license, hunting licenses, barber's licences, dentist's licenses, license to kill - nah, that's James Bond. And that's in England. And I hope states don't do that. Pretty simple right? Maybe not. For one thing, there are some aspects of government that are handled by both the state and national government. Taxes, American's favorite government activity, are an example. There are federal taxes and state taxes. But it gets even more complicated because there are different types of federalism depending on what period in American history you're talking about. UGH! Stan! Why is history so confusing!? UGH! Stan, are you going to tell me? Can you talk Stan? Basically though, there are two main types of federalism -dual federalism, which has nothing to do Aaron Burr, usually refers to the period of American history that stretches from the founding of our great nation until the New Deal, and cooperative federalism, which has been the rule since the 1930s. Let's start with an easy one and start with dual federalism in the Thought Bubble. From 1788 until 1937, the US basically lived under a regime of dual federalism, which meant that government power was strictly divided between the state and national governments. Notice that I didn't say separated, because I don't want you to confuse federalism with the separation of powers. DON'T DO IT! With dual federalism, there are some things that only the federal government does and some things that only the state governments do. This is sometimes called jurisdiction. The national government had jurisdiction over internal improvements like interstate roads and canals, subsidies to the states, and tariffs, which are taxes on imports and thus falls under the general heading of foreign policy. The national government also owns public lands and regulates patents which need to be national for them to offer protection for inventors in all the states. And because you want a silver dollar in Delaware to be worth the same as a silver dollar in Georgia, the national government also controls currency. The state government had control over property laws, inheritance laws, commercial laws, banking laws, corporate laws, insurance, family law, which means marriage and divorce, morality -- stuff like public nudeness and drinking - which keeps me in check -- public health, education, criminal laws including determining what is a crime and how crimes are prosecuted, land use, which includes water and mineral rights, elections, local government, and licensing of professions and occupations, basically what is required to drive a car, or open a bar or become a barber or become James Bond. So, under dual federalism, the state government has jurisdiction over a lot more than the national government. These powers over health, safety and morality are sometimes called police power and usually belong to the states. Because of the strict division between the two types of government, dual federalism is sometimes called layer cake federalism. Delicious. And it's consistent with the tradition of limited government that many Americans hold dear. Thanks Thought Bubble. Now, some of you might be wondering, Craig, where does the national government get the power to do anything that has do to with states? Yeah, well off the top of my head, the US Constitution in Article I, Section 8 Clause 3 gives Congress the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." This is what is known as the Commerce Clause, and the way that it's been interpreted is the basis of dual federalism and cooperative federalism. For most of the 19th century, the Supreme Court has decided that almost any attempt by any government, federal or state, to regulate state economic activity would violate the Commerce Clause. This basically meant that there was very little regulation of business at all. FREEDOOOOOOMM! This is how things stood, with the US following a system of dual federalism, with very little government regulation and the national government not doing much other than going to war or buying and conquering enormous amounts of territories and delivering the mail. Then the Great Depression happened, and Franklin Roosevelt and Congress enacted the New Deal, which changed the role of the federal government in a big way. The New Deal brought us cooperative federalism, where the national government encourages states and localities to pursue nationally-defined goals. The main way that the federal government does this is through dollar-dollar bills, y'all. Money is what I'm saying. Stan, can I make it rain? Yeah? Alright, I'm doing it. I happen to have cash in my hand now. Oh yeah, take my federal money, states. Regulating ya. Regulator. This money that the federal government gives to the states is called a grant-in-aid. Grants-in-aid can work like a carrot encouraging a state to adopt a certain policy or work like a stick when the federal government withholds funds if a state doesn't do what the national government wants. Grants-in-aid are usually called categorical, because they're given to states for a particular purpose like transportation or education or alleviating poverty. There are 2 types of categorical grants-in-aid: formula grants and project grants. Under a formula grant, a state gets aid in a certain amount of money based on a mathematical formula; the best example of this is the old way welfare was given in the US under the program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. AFDC. States got a certain amount of money for every person who was classified as "poor." The more poor people a state had, the more money it got. Project grants require states to submit proposals in order to receive aid. The states compete for a limited pool of resources. Nowadays, project grants are more common than formula grants, but neither is as popular as block grants, which the government gives out Lego Blocks and then you build stuff with Legos. It's a good time. No no, the national government gives a state a huge chunk of money for something big, like infrastructure, which is made with concrete and steel, and not Legos, and the state is allowed to decide how to spend the money. The basic type of cooperative federalism is the carrot stick type which is sometimes called marble cake federalism because it mixes up the state and federal governments in ways that makes it impossible to separate the two. Federalism, it's such a culinary delight. The key to it is, you guessed it - dollar dollar bills y'all. Money. But there are another aspect of cooperative federalism that's really not so cooperative, and that's regulated federalism. Under regulated federalism, the national governments sets up regulations and rules that the states must follow. Some examples of these rules, also called mandates, are EPA regulations, civil rights standards, and the rules set up by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sometimes the government gives the states money to implement the rules, but sometimes it doesn't and they must comply anyways. That's called an unfunded mandate. Or as I like to call it, an un-fun mandate. Because no money, no fun. A good example of example of this is OSHA regulations that employers have to follow. States don't like these, and Congress tried to do something about them with the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act or UMRA, but it hasn't really worked. In the early 21st century, Americans are basically living under a system of cooperative federalism with some areas of activity that are heavily regulated. This is a stretch from the original idea that federalism will keep the national government small and have most government functions belong to the states. If you follow American politics, and I know you do, this small government ideal should sound familiar because it's the bedrock principle of many conservatives and libertarians in the US. As conservatives made many political inroads during the 1970s, a new concept of federalism, which was kind of an old concept of federalism, became popular. It was called, SURPRISE, New Federalism, and it was popularized by Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Just to be clear, it's called New Federalism not Surprise New Federalism. New federalism basically means giving more power to the states, and this has been done in three ways. First, block grants allow states discretion to decide what to do with federal money, and what's a better way to express your power than spending money? Or not spending money as the case may be. Another form of New Federalism is devolution, which is the process of giving state and local governments the power to enforce regulations, devolving power from the national to the state level. Finally, some courts have picked up the cause of New Federalism through cases based on the 10th Amendment, which states "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The idea that some powers, like those police powers I talked about before, are reserved by the states, have been used to put something of a brake on the Commerce Clause. So as you can see, where we are with federalism today is kind of complicated. Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton seem to favor New Federalism and block grants. But George W. Bush seemed to push back towards regulated federalism with laws like No Child Left Behind and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It's pretty safe to say that we're going to continue to live under a regime of cooperative federalism, with a healthy dose of regulation thrown in. But many Americans feel that the national government is too big and expensive and not what the framers wanted. If history is any guide, a system of dual federalism with most of the government in the hands of the states is probably not going to happen. For some reason, it's really difficult to convince institutions to give up powers once they've got them. I'm never giving up this power. Thanks for watching, I'll see you next week. Crash Course Government and Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support for Crash Course US Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports non-profits that use technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives at Crash Course is made with the help of these nice people. Thanks for watching. You didn't help make this video at all, did you? No. But you did get people to keep watching until the end because you're an adorable dog.



The basic political subdivision of California are the 58 counties. The county government provides countywide services such as law enforcement, jails, elections and voter registration, vital records, property assessment and records, tax collection, public health, health care, social services, libraries, flood control, fire protection, animal control, agricultural regulations, building inspections, ambulance services, and education departments in charge of maintaining statewide standards.[1][2] In addition the county serves as the local government for all unincorporated areas (those areas not within any incorporated city), providing services such as police, parks, street maintenance, land use regulations, zoning, and waste disposal.[3] Counties have taxing and police powers. Counties may promulgate ordinances which are usually codified in a county code, and violations of the ordinances are misdemeanor crimes unless otherwise specified as an infraction.[4]

Major county governments
County Largest city Government
Alameda Oakland Government of Alameda County
Fresno Fresno Government of Fresno County
Los Angeles Los Angeles Government of Los Angeles County
Sacramento Sacramento Government of Sacramento County
San Diego San Diego Government of San Diego County
San Francisco Government of San Francisco
San Joaquin Stockton Government of San Joaquin County
Solano Vallejo Government of Solano County
Stanislaus Modesto Government of Stanislaus County

Thirteen counties are "charter" counties while the rest are "general law" counties.[5] Other than San Francisco, which is a consolidated city-county, California's counties are governed by an elected five-member Board of Supervisors, who appoint executive officers to manage the various functions of the county.[5] In San Francisco, there is an eleven-member Board of Supervisors,[5] but the executive branch of the government is headed by an elected mayor, department heads are responsible to the mayor, and there is both a city police department and a county sheriff, the latter mostly responsible for operating the county jail and for most jail bookings.[6] Most counties elect all of their supervisors by district except San Mateo and Tehama.[5] (San Francisco had at-large supervisors from 1980 to 2000, but in 2000 the county was once again divided into 11 districts, whose updated borders roughly followed those of the old 1970s-era districts, although the districts themselves were renumbered.) All counties elect their treasurers except Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and Glenn.[5] Forty-seven counties have an appointed county administrative officer, while five counties have a more powerful official such as a county manager, chief executive officer, or county mayor, and five rural counties do not have a full-time county administrative officer.[5] All counties elect their district attorneys and their sheriffs.[citation needed] Counties may also have an assessor, a recorder, an auditor, a controller, a treasurer, a tax collector, a county clerk, a registrar of voters, a coroner, and/or a medical examiner.[citation needed]

California's judicial system is organized along county lines, but the county courts are a part of the state court system, and are not part of the county government. Historically, counties were responsible for providing courthouses and courthouse security for the Superior Courts of California (there is one superior court for each county), even though the superior courts were actually divisions of the state government, not the county governments. This unfunded mandate was a perennial source of frustration for both the superior courts and the counties. The Legislature finally responded by enacting the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 and then the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 to transfer all courthouses to the state government and to relieve the counties of the burden of providing facilities to state courts. However, because the state government was not prepared to assume the burden of developing its own statewide courthouse security force, the superior courts were allowed to establish agreements with county sheriffs by which the courts would reimburse counties for continuing to provide deputy sheriffs to serve as bailiffs in the courthouses.

Because of historical problems with fragmentation of local government as a result of the formation of too many special districts by enthusiastic local officials, all counties currently have a corresponding Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), one for each county. A LAFCO regulates the creation of special districts and the annexation of unincorporated land to cities within the county. No incorporated city may cross county boundaries, and special districts that span county lines must be specially approved by the state Legislature.

The San Diego County Administration Building, where the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meets
The San Diego County Administration Building, where the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meets

California also uses grand juries, with at least one per county.[7] These county-level grand juries are often called civil grand juries because their primary focus is on oversight of government institutions at the county level and lower. They meet at least once per year.

On January 4, 1850, the California constitutional committee recommended the formation of 18 counties. They were Benicia, Butte, Fremont, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Monterey, Mount Diablo, Oro, Redding, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Sutter. On April 22, the counties of Branciforte, Calaveras, Coloma, Colusi, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Trinity, and Yuba were added. Benicia was renamed Solano, Coloma to El Dorado, Fremont to Yolo, Mt. Diablo to Contra Costa, San Jose to Santa Clara, Oro to Tuolumne, and Redding to Shasta. One of the first state legislative acts regarding counties was to rename Branciforte County to Santa Cruz, Colusi to Colusa, and Yola to Yolo. The last county in California to be established is Imperial County on August 7, 1907.

Since 1911, counties in California have been allowed limited home rule, with the Government of Los Angeles County the first in the nation to be granted home rule by charter in 1912.[8][9][10] The county governments were originally molded around property recording and assessment, law enforcement, judicial administration, and tax collection, but more recently other functions have been added by the state such as public welfare, public health, water conservation, and flood protection.[8] In 1933, county supervisors gained authority to fix salaries for all county officers other than themselves.[11]

Cities and towns

As of July 1, 2011, there were 482 incorporated municipalities in the state.[12] Under California law, the terms "city" and "town" are explicitly interchangeable; the name of an incorporated municipality in the state can either be "City of (Name)" or "Town of (Name)".[13] Counties exercise the powers of cities in unincorporated areas.[3]

Major city governments
City County Government
Los Angeles Los Angeles Government of Los Angeles
San Francisco Government of San Francisco
Sacramento Sacramento Government of Sacramento

California municipalities are either charter or general-law. General-law municipalities have powers defined by the state's Government Code;[note 3] charter municipalities may have increased powers, but the adoption or amendment of a city charter requires a popular vote. Most small cities have a council–manager government, where the elected city council appoints a city manager to supervise the operations of the city. Some larger cities have a mayor–council government, with a directly-elected mayor who oversees the city government. In many council–manager cities, the city council selects one of its members as a mayor, sometimes rotating through the council membership—but this type of mayoral position is primarily ceremonial.

Incorporated cities and towns have the power to levy taxes. They are responsible for providing police service, zoning, issuing building permits, and maintaining public streets. Municipalities may also provide parks, public housing, and various utility services, though all of these are sometimes provided by special districts, and some utilities are provided privately. Incorporated cities may promulgate ordinances which are usually codified in a city code, and violations of the ordinances are misdemeanor crimes unless otherwise specified as an infraction.[14]

Residents of a sufficiently large piece of unincorporated county land can incorporate a city. The city government then takes some of the tax revenue that would have gone to the county, and can impose additional taxes on its residents. It can then choose to provide almost all the services usually provided by the county (and more), or provide only a few and pay the county to do the rest. A city in this last arrangement is called a contract city; this type of contract is generally known among lawyers as the "Lakewood Plan", because it was pioneered by the city of Lakewood in 1954.[15]

School districts

Public education of children is provided by school districts, which are governed independently from cities. Each county has a board of education and superintendent that oversee school districts within the county. There are about 1,102 school districts.[16]

California school districts may be organized as elementary districts, high school districts, unified school districts combining elementary and high school grades, or community college districts.[16] Union districts are formed by joining two or more elementary districts.[16] School districts are governed by an elected school board (sometimes called a "board of education" or "board of trustees"), which manages the schools within its jurisdiction.[16] There are also county special service schools and regional occupational programs provide vocational and technical education.[16] Historically, school districts were organized at the primary level (Kindergarten through 8th grade, approximately ages 5–13), and the secondary (high school) level (9th through 12th grade, approximately ages 14–17).

School district and community college district boards may determine their own fiscal requirements—the counties levy and collect the taxes required, possibly subject to constitutional tax limitations and voter approval.[16] Historically, school districts were funded through local property tax revenue, but due to Serrano v. Priest, school districts are funded through the State government through various funding formulas that allocate local property tax revenues and other revenue.

Community colleges

The State of California operates the University of California and the California State University as statewide systems. However, community colleges, which provide the first two years of post-secondary education and adult vocational courses, are organized in community college districts, which operate one or more community colleges within their jurisdiction. Community college districts in California are governed by elected boards.

The main building of Mission College of the West Valley-Mission Community College District in Santa Clara
The main building of Mission College of the West Valley-Mission Community College District in Santa Clara

California's first community colleges were established as extensions of high schools.[17] Through legislation enacted in 1907, high schools were allowed to create "junior colleges" to provide a general undergraduate education to local students, approximating the first two years of university courses.[17] In the early 1920s, the Legislature authorized the creation of separate colleges, in addition to the programs offered in high schools.[17] In 1967, the Governor and Legislature created the Board of Governors for the Community Colleges to oversee the community colleges and formally established the California Community Colleges System, requiring all areas of the state to be included within a community college district.[17]

Special districts

A special district is defined as "any agency of the state for the local performance of governmental or proprietary functions within limited boundaries"[18] and provides a limited range of services within a defined geographic area. Most of California's special districts are single-purpose districts, and provide one service. Most special districts have no police powers.

Independent special districts have elected boards. Dependent special districts are governed by the city or county that created them. Regional bodies have boards appointed by the city and county governments they encompass. Some districts, often referred to as assessment districts, have voting based on the assessed values of the property contained within the district, rather than a popular vote; that practice was ruled constitutional for districts that provide benefits to the land in rough proportion to the value of the land, rather than to people within the district.[note 4]

Districts are categorized as enterprise districts and non-enterprise districts. Enterprise districts operate as a business, and obtain most of their revenue from user fees or sales of a product or service. Enterprise districts include those that provide water, waste disposal, electric power, hospitals, public transit, and similar services.

The most common type of special district is the utility district, which provides public utility services to residents within the district boundaries. Among the largest of these are the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which provides electric power in the Sacramento area, the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to local water agencies in the Los Angeles area, and the Imperial Irrigation District, which provides water for agriculture and electric power in Imperial County.

Another very common type of special district is the transit agency, which provides public transportation. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority provides bus and train services and funds some transportation projects, including bicycle paths, HOV lanes, and other road improvements. By contrast, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District only operates a commuter rail service and buses to locations beyond the range of the rail service.

There are at least 3,000 special districts, and possibly as many as 5,000, depending on how they are counted. Special districts spend over $26 billion each year (over $700 per person in California), though some significant amount of that is double-counted as some districts subsidize or purchase services from others.

A partial list of the types of special districts includes:[19]

  • Air pollution control districts
  • Air quality management districts
  • Airport districts
  • Bridge or highway districts
  • California water districts
  • Mello-Roos (community facilities districts)
  • Community services districts
  • County sanitation districts
  • County service areas
  • County water districts
  • County waterworks districts
  • Fire protection districts
  • Harbor and port districts
  • Health care districts
  • Improvement districts
  • Irrigation districts
  • Joint power agencies
  • Joint highway districts
  • Library districts
  • Metropolitan water districts
  • Mosquito abatement districts
  • Municipal utility districts
  • Municipal water districts
  • Permanent road divisions
  • Pest control districts
  • Police protection districts
  • Public cemetery districts
  • Public utility districts
  • Reclamation districts
  • Recreation and park districts
  • Redevelopment agencies
  • Resource conservation districts
  • Sanitary districts
  • Separation of grade districts
  • Service zones of special districts
  • Sewer districts
  • Sewer maintenance districts
  • Special assessment districts
  • Transit or rapid transit districts
  • Unified or union high school library districts
  • Vector control districts

See also


  1. ^ San Francisco is a consolidated city–county, and its government has the powers of both.
  2. ^ Twenty-two cities in California style themselves "town" but this distinction has no legal significance.
  3. ^ "California Government Code".
  4. ^ The case was Salyer Land Company v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District (1972).


  1. ^ Baldassare, Mark (1998). When Government Fails: The Orange County Bankruptcy. Public Policy Institute of California/University of California Press. pp. 67–68. ISBN 0-520-21486-2. LCCN 97032806.
  2. ^ Janiskee, Brian P.; Masugi, Ken (2011). Democracy in California: Politics and Government in the Golden State (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 105. ISBN 978-1-4422-0338-9. LCCN 2011007585.
  3. ^ a b Baldassare 1998, pp. 67-68.
  4. ^ California Government Code § 25132
  5. ^ a b c d e f Baldassare 1998, p. 50.
  6. ^ "California immigration holds drop". The Washington Post. AP. 6 April 2014.
  7. ^ Korey, John L. (2008). California Government (5th ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-547-04193-3.
  8. ^ a b Crouch, Winston Winford; McHenry, Dean Eugene; Bollens, John Constantinus; Scott, Stanley (1952). State and Local Government in California. University of California Press. p. 166. OCLC 3118795.
  9. ^ Miller, E. J. (August 1913). "A New Departure in County Government: California's Experiment with Home Rule Charters". American Political Science Review. American Political Science Association. 7 (3): 411–419. JSTOR 1944966.
  10. ^ Boyer, Paul Samuel (2001). The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford University Press. p. 523. ISBN 0-19-508209-5.
  11. ^ Crouch et al. 1952, p. 172.
  12. ^ "Learn About Cities". League of California Cities. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  13. ^ California Government Code § 34502
  14. ^ California Government Code § 36900 et seq.
  15. ^ Reynolds, 48-49.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Individual State Descriptions: 2007 (PDF), 2007 Census of Governments, United States Census Bureau, November 2012, pp. 25–26
  17. ^ a b c d Little Hoover Commission (February 2012). Serving Students, Serving California: Updating the California Community Colleges to Meet Evolving Demands. Little Hoover Commission. pp. 5–6. Retrieved 2012-10-23.
  18. ^ Government Code § 16271(d)
  19. ^ It’s Time To Draw The Line (PDF), California Senate, archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-02-03
This page was last edited on 18 October 2018, at 02:36
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