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Georgetown Law Library

California Research In-Depth

This State Guide provides an in-depth look at sources of law within the state of California.

Local Governments

A. Background Information Sources

B. County Government

There are 58 counties in the state of California. The County is the "largest political subdivision of the state having corporate powers." The two types of California counties are (1) charter counties, and (2) general law counties. The state constitution allows charter counties the autonomy to create and enforce local ordinances, provided the ordinances do not conflict with the general laws of the state. General law counties are governed by the California Government Code. This "home rule" option permits greater flexibility in local governance because the counties are given the power and authority to provide for the health and welfare of its residents.

The role of county government, as a political subdivision of the state, is to deliver the services mandated by the state and federal governments, for instance, health, welfare, criminal justice, elections, recording of documents, weights & measures, and agricultural enforcement. Each county is governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors that sets policy, enacts ordinances and regulations, and oversees activities of county departments.

  • The California State Association of Counties web site provides access to official county web sites, county maps, listings of cities within each county and other explanatory information about the powers and structure of California counties.
  • The Institute of Governmental Studies at UC, Berkeley, maintains a California Local Government Information Website as a starting point for finding information about California local government.


Article XI, § 3(a) of the Constitution of California states: For its own government, a county or city may adopt a charter by majority vote of its electors voting on the question. The charter is effective when filed with the Secretary of State. A charter may be amended, revised, or repealed in the same manner. A charter, amendment, revision, or repeal thereof shall be published in the official state statutes.

a. Method of Enacting or Revising a Charter
The procedure for enacting or revising charters can be found in the California Government Code § 23700-23714. Charter counties are listed on the California State Association of Counties web site and, where available, links to their charters, ordinances, or codes:
Alameda Butte El Dorado
Fresno Los Angeles Orange
Placer Sacramento San Bernardino
San Diego San Francisco San Mateo
Santa Clara Tehama  


When no charter is adopted, the county will be governed by the California General Code. General Law Counties have less autonomy to make governance decisions. Here is a list of the 45 general law counties and, where available, links to their ordinances:

C. City Government

Their are 478 incorporated cities in the state of California. Article XI, § 3 of the Constitution of California also provides for the creation of city government. Cities derive their power from either the California Government Code (statute) or from adopting a city charter. General law cities, charter cities and consolidated city and county are the three forms of California cities. General law cities are governed by the California Government code; charter cities are governed by the adoption of charters; and the consolidated city and county is a city and a county that have been merged into one jurisdiction and is governed by a charter. As such, it is simultaneously a city, which is a municipal corporation; and a county, which is an administrative division of a state. At present, San Franciscois the only consolidated city and county in California.

Cities have a higher level of autonomy than counties because they are voluntarily formed and perform many essential service functions which are of most immediate concern to citizens. California Constitution Art. XI and California Government Code § 34871 discuss the difference between general law and charter cities. Charter cities have more autonomy in their governance because through the enactment of localized laws their authority expands beyond the general law requirements.

  • The League of California Cities web site provides access to a thorough compilation of explanatory resources about California cities. Below are direct links to specific sections of the site:
    • Facts at a Glance. A listing of current and historical general information on cities. Also contains census bureau population statistics.


City charters are adopted, enacted, or revised in the same manner as county charters. See above. The League of California Cities and the Institute for Local Government have compiled helpful links to web sites with charter city resources.


General law cities are governed by the California Government Code. Berkeley provides an alphabetized list of all California cities with links to their web sites when available.


D. Special Districts

California Special Districts are state agencies created for the local performance of a specific governmental or proprietary function, unlike cities and counties that perform a wide variety of functions for their citizenry. Special districts provide services and facilities within a defined boundary and are governed by a board.


Special Districts provide specific services within a defined area. There are approximately 4,763 Special Districts in the State of California. The two major categories of special district activities are (1) enterprise - similar to private business, their funding is primarily derived from user charges and fees, or (2) non enterprise - functions are provided on a funding basis derived primarily from property tax allocations.

Independent Special Districts have their own separate boards of directors elected by the districts' voters, and also include districts where the appointed boards of directors serve for fixed terms. Dependent Special Districts are governed by existing legislative bodies such as a city council or a county board of supervisors.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and PowerMosquito and Vector Control Association of CaliforniaMojave Desert Air Quality Management DistrictSouth Coast Air Quality Management District, and the Central Coast Water Authority are examples of important special districts. California Special Districts may include an Airport District, a Library District, Healthcare/Hospital District, Police Protection District, Sanitation/Sewer District, Transit District or a Water District.

  • Special Districts Annual Reports. The California State Controller's Office (CSCO) has links to the Special Districts Annual Reports from fiscal years 1998 to 2005. Summary Reports are available for fiscal years 1995 to 1998. The annual reports provide detailed information about revenues and expenditures, and are compilations of financial data provided by county auditors and special district officials. Special Districts provide financial transaction reports to the State Controller's Office pursuant to California Government Code § 53890-53897.
  • Top 250 Special Districts. From the Special Districts Annual Reports, the CSCO compiles a list of the largest total revenue generating Special Districts.
  • California Special Districts Association. The California Special Districts Association (CSDA) is a not-for-profit association that was formed in 1969 to ensure the continued existence of local, independent special districts.
  • Membership Directory Search. The researcher can search the database for CSDA member districts. Results include direct links to district web sites where available. Search by region, county, district service, or professional service. Nonmembers can access general information on CSDA members.

E. Regional Government Organizations

Regional Government Organizations consist of local governments working together to facilitate research and draw up plans for regional improvements in areas such as transportation, housing, waste management, economic growth and air quality.

  • Association of Bay Area Governments. The membership includes the following counties and cities within: Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Marin County, Napa County, San Francisco County, San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Solano County and Sonoma County.
  • Southern California Association of Governments.The membership includes the following counties and cities within: Imperial County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Ventura County.
  • San Diego Association of Governments. The membership includes San Diego County and the cities within the boundaries of San Diego County.

F. California Tribes

There are approximately 333,511 Native Americans residing in the state of California. In the interest of preserving the history of Native Americans the Governor's Office of Planning and Research recently enacted Chapter 905, Statutes of 2004 (Senate Bill No. 18) that amends sections of the Civil Code and Government Code relating to the protection of traditional tribal cultural places by requiring cities and counties to notify and consult with California Native American Tribes about proposed local land use planning decisions. The Tribal Consultation Guidelines provide "advisory guidance to cities and counties on the process for consulting with Native American tribes during the adoption or amendment of local general plans or specific plans in accordance with the statutory requirements of Senate Bill 18."

  • California Native American Heritage Commission. Local government agencies with an emphasis on protecting and preserving Native American Human Remains, Associated Grave Goods and Cultural Resources. This web site provides access to historical, cultural and preservation information along with local, state and federal ordinances, codes and laws.
  • California Tribal Government Websites. Bureau of Indian Affairs resource.