Local government in California

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California (U.S. state) has a very extensive and complicated system of local government to carry out public functions throughout the state. Like most states, California is divided into counties; of which there are 58 including San Francisco, California[1]; municipal areas are incorporated as cities[2], though not all of California is within the boundaries of a city. Education is handled by several types of school districts which are , and many other functions, especially in unincorporated areas, are handled by special districts ranging from municipal utility districts to transit districts to vector control districts and geologic hazard abatement districts.


The basic political subdivision of California is the county. There are 58 counties in California. Counties are responsible for providing police services in unincorporated areas, prosecuting criminal defendants, operating a jail, providing for public health, and overseeing public education. Counties have taxing power, and through their Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), power over creation of special districts and annexation of unincorporated land to cities within the county. Counties are responsible for assessing property values and collecting property taxes.

The county serves as the municipal government for unincorporated areas (those areas not within any incorporated city).

No incorporated city may cross county boundaries, and special districts which span county lines must be specially approved by the state Legislature.

Other than San Francisco, which is a City and County, California's counties are governed by an elected Board of Supervisors, who appoint executive officers to manage the various functions of the county. In San Francisco, there is a Board of Supervisors, but the executive branch of the government is headed by an elected mayor, and department heads are responsible to the mayor.

California's judicial system is organized along county lines, but the county courts are subordinate to the state courts, and are not part of the county government.


A city, in California, is any incorporated municipality. California cities are either charter cities or general-law cities. General-law cities have powers defined by the state's Government Code[3]; charter cities may have increased powers, but adoption and amendment of city charters requires a popular vote. Most small cities have a council-manager form of government, where the elected city council appoints a city manager to supervise the operations of the city. Some larger cities have a directly-elected mayor who oversees the city government. In many council-manager cities, the city council will select one of its own as a mayor, sometimes rotating through the council membership, but the position is primarily ceremonial. There are 468 incorporated cities in California.

Cities have the power to levy taxes. Cities are responsible for providing police service, zoning, issuing building permits, and maintaining public streets. Cities 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.

Counties exercise the powers of cities in unincorporated areas.

School Districts

Public education of children is provided by school districts, which are governed independently from cities in California. Each county has a Board of Education which provides oversight of the school districts within the county. Historically, school districts were organized at the grammar-school level (Kindergarten through 8th grade, approximately ages 5-13), and the high school level (9th through 12th grade, approximately ages 14-17). In many places, the "School District" (grammar school) and "High School District" have merged, and are termed a "Unified School District".[4] School districts are governed by an elected School Board (sometimes called "Board of Education" or "Board of Trustees"), which operates the schools within its jurisdiction. School districts are funded through the State government through various funding formulas which 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 are governed by elected boards.

Special Districts

A special district is a government body which 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 do not have police powers.

Independent special districts have elected boards. Dependent special districts are governed by the city or county which created them. Regional bodies have boards appointed by the city and county governments which 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 popular vote; this was ruled constitutional for districts which provide benefits to the land in rough proportion to the value of the land, rather than to people within the district.[5]

Districts are categorized as enterprise districts and non-enterprise districts - enterprise districts are those which operate as a business, and obtain most of their revenue from user fees or sales of a product or service. Enterprise districts include those which 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 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 and operates one of California's few nuclear power plants, 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 Transit 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 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 purchase services from others, and some subsidize others.


  1. San Francisco is a City and County, and its government has the powers of both.
  2. Four cities in California style themselves "town" but this distinction has no legal significance.
  3. California Government Code.
  4. Some school districts have "Union" in their name; these were formed by geographic consolidation.
  5. The case was Salyer Land Company v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District (1972).