McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli

The role of local government cannot be overstated. The 58 counties, the 482 cities, and over 3000 special districts from transportation agencies to local air districts, water boards, and vector control agencies, all play a very critical role in making and implementing public policy throughout the state of California.

Counties are specified as “political subdivisions of the state” according to the California Constitution. Nonetheless, they’re very critical because they run so much of government that affects individuals in our society on an almost daily basis. For example, they provide health and human services funding, law enforcement, and they conduct elections at the local level. Local governments in California not only implement state laws but also they have rulemaking authority themselves. Some examples of a municipal ordinance could include regulating parking to even allowing or disallowing the sale of cannabis in their city or county.

State laws are certainly critical to our society, but local laws cannot be ignored. There are even local political laws such as those in major cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco or San Jose, that require everything from lobbyist disclosure and registration to local election laws that cap individual contributions to candidates even as low as $250. Regardless of whatever activities that you may be engaged in, you should not only be aware of the relevant state laws, but you also have to examine any local ordinances to ensure yours or your clients’ compliance with all of the laws that might impact your business or your conduct.

The 58 counties in California are governed by 5-member elected boards of supervisors – with the exception of San Francisco, which has an 11 member board because San Francisco is both a city and a county. Almost all supervisors are elected by district except in a few instances and they in turn generally utilize executives to manage the county functions. The main county executive is the CAO or the Chief Administrative Officer. Note that in all 58 counties, the district attorneys and the sheriffs are elected countywide independently of the Board of Supervisors.

There are more than 480 cities in California as well that provide a wide range of municipal services including police, fire, parks, libraries. Generally, the city government is headed by an elected or appointed mayor to whom department heads are then responsible. City councils usually appoint a city manager to oversee city services and staff. Note that incorporated cities have the power of taxation and law enforcement as well as powers such as zoning, providing for parks, recreational services and other municipal services.

The third type of local government is school districts. There are more than 1100 school districts in California that are generally overseen by an elected board of education and are governed independently from cities and counties.

The final type of local government is a special district. special districts in California are generally defined as, “Any agency of the state for the local performance of governmental or proprietary functions within limited boundaries” and the all provide specific services within a defined geographic area. There are approximately 3,000 plus special districts in California.

You can find a full transcript of today’s podcast here.

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