Local government in California
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] municipal areas are incorporated as cities,[note 2] though not all 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.
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 that span county lines must be specially approved by the state Legislature.
California counties are either charter or general-law. 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. 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. In 1933, county supervisors gained authority to fix salaries for all county officers other than themselves.
Other than San Francisco, which is a consolidated city–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 a part of the state court system, and are not part of the county government.
Cities and towns 
There are 482 incorporated municipalities in the state; of which 460 are cities and 22 are towns. 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)".
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 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 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.
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 that oversees school districts within the county. 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). In many places, the "School District" (primary school) and "High School District" have merged, and are termed a "Unified School District".[note 4] School districts are governed by an elected school board (sometimes called "Board of Education" or "Board of Trustees"), which manages the schools within its jurisdiction. Historically, school districts were funded through local property tax revenue; since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and the ensuing changes to public finance, 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.
Special districts 
A special district is a government body that 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 don't have 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 popular vote; this 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 5]
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 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.
A short list of the types of special districts includes:
- Air pollution control districts
- Air quality management districts
- Airport districts
- Bridge or highway districts
- California water districts
- Community college districts
- Community facilities districts (Mello-Roos districts)
- Community services districts
- County sanitation districts
- County service areas
- County water districts
- County waterworks districts
- Fire protection districts
- Harbor and port districts
- Healthcare 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
- School 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
- San Francisco is a consolidated city–county, and its government has the powers of both.
- Twenty-two cities in California style themselves "town" but this distinction has no legal significance.
- "California Government Code".
- Some school districts have "Union" in their name; these were generally formed by geographic consolidation.
- The case was Salyer Land Company v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District (1972).
- 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.
- 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.
- Boyer, Paul Samuel (2001). The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford University Press. p. 523. ISBN 0-19-508209-5.
- Crouch et al. 1952, p. 172.
- "CA Codes (gov:34500-34504)". California State Senate. Retrieved January 29, 2010.
- It’s Time To Draw The Line, California Senate