California Resources

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

Local Governments

The California Government Code and Article XI of the California Constitution provide for the creation and existence of local government agencies. California local government is comprised of counties, cities, special districts and regional bodies.

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.  There are currently 13 charter counties, including: Alameda, Butte, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Placer, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Tehama. 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.

Charter Counties

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 A charter may be amended, revised, or repealed in the same manner.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."

The procedure for enacting or revising charters can be found in the California Government Code § 23700-23714.  Counties with charters include Alameda, Butte, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Placer, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Tehama. To locate a county's charter, search for the county on California State Association of Counties' website, or on for California.

General Law Counties

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. These include Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Marin, Mariposa, Mendocino, Merced, Modoc, Mono, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, Plumas, Riverside, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Sutter, Trinity, Tulare, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo, and Yuba. To locate a county's ordinance, search for the county on California State Association of Counties' website, or on for California.

Resources on Counties
  • California State Association of Counties "represent county government before the California Legislature, administrative agencies and the federal government." The website offers County Profile Information and links to county websites, explains County Structure & Powers, provides County History, the origin of counties and historical county maps, and offers legislative tracking on which CSAC has taken an active or pending position, listings of cities within each county and other explanatory information about the powers and structure of California counties.
  • California Local Government Documents. Maintained by U.C. Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, acts as a starting point for finding information about California local government.
  • California Local Codes and Charters. Maintained by the Institute of Governmental Studies, offers a depository of local city and county ordinance codes and charters.
  • Municode Library: California 
  • Counties Financial Data. Offered by the California State Controller's Office, revenue and expenditure reports by counties in an open data format.

City Government

There 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 Francisco is 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.

Resources on Cities

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.

Resources on Special Districts

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.

California Tribes