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A charter city is a city in which the governing system is defined by the city's own charter document rather than by state, provincial, regional or national laws. In locations where city charters are allowed by law, a city can adopt or modify its organizing charter by a majority vote of its resident citizens. A charter gives a city the flexibility to choose novel types of government structure. These cities may be administered predominantly by citizens or through a third-party management structure. Charter cities are similar in administrative structure to special administrative regions.


For example, in California, cities which have not adopted a charter are organized by state law. Such a city is called a General Law City, which will be managed by a 5-member city council. A city organized under a charter may choose different systems, including the "strong mayor" or "city manager" forms of government.[1][2] One example of abuse of the charter system was in Bell, California. The charter was created after a lit­tle-no­ticed spe­cial elec­tion, where few voters understood what becoming a charter city meant. After a charter was approved, state laws limiting city salary no longer applied and City Manager Robert Rizzo gave himself a salary of $1.5 million for managing a city of about 36,000 people. [3] As of June 2008, 112 of California's 478 cities are charter cities.[4]

However, charter cities that are subordinate to larger the rules of institutions (such as provinces or nations) have limit flexibility to adopt new governance structures. Historical examples cover a broad range of charter cities, from virtually independent city-states to smaller municipalities which have limited administrative freedom. For example, the Hansa League port city of Lübeck, Germany was a chartered city, governed by an autonomous council of local burgesses.[5] Addis Ababa in Ethiopia is also a chartered city. Similarly, the state of Pennsylvania was founded after Charles II granted William Penn a land charter in 1681.

Hong Kong and Macua both are current examples of special administrative regions, similar to charter cities, in China.

Governance and Administrative Structure[edit]

The range of what is considered a "charter city" may lead to definitional ambiguities. Most times, however, a charter city is city is founded by charter before large-scale development takes place. While a city may adopt a new "charter" long after its first codification of rules, as in the cases of many cities in California, generally the designation of a charter city is reserved for those municipalities whose charter guides development decisions or influences the creation of social structure from the beginning, as in the case of Hong Kong. A charter city may have some exemptions from some state or provincial laws, which varies entirely for each particular region.

With the help of a guiding charter, cities may be able to avoid administrative inefficiencies and establish rules with alternate social motivations. Thus, one benefit of charter cities is the freedom they offer in establishment of rules of governance. For example, many charter cities, like Hong Kong and Singapore as cities, use alternative forms of property taxation. Because charter cities are often founded with a goal of large-scale urban development, efficient use of the city's limited land is of utmost importance, for both the economic sustainability of the citizens and the government units. Thus, rather than using the traditional tax on both property and land, charter cities may use land value taxation, which taxes only the value of land, thus not providing disincentives for development.

Development Potential[edit]

Economist Paul Romer proposes founding many new charter cities in developing countries. Romer suggests that a developing country pass a law that sets aside a tract of land for a new charter city. This charter city would be administered by a developed third-party guarantor government, and citizens from the host country (and maybe other countries) could move in and out as they please. The point of the charter cities idea is to give citizens the choice about where they want to live and to provide the basic rules and amenities required for economic growth. Ideally, by establishing a city with highly-developed rules and governance in an underdeveloped region, living and working in a charter city may provide a closer and more attractive alternative to moving far away to more developed countries. [6]

In Romer’s conception, there are three main actors in the creation of a charter city. First, there is the developing host country. The host country provides the land, and designates that land as a special reform zone, subject to the foundational set of rules. Second, the developed guarantor country administers the region, perhaps with a board of governors and an appointed chairman like the Federal Reserve System in the United States. Third, the source country will be where the charter city’s residents come from. This may be predominantly from the host country, but there also may be a number of source countries. [7]

In practice, some countries have been receptive to Romer's idea. Upon meeting with the president, Madagascar considered creating two charter cities, but the plan was scrapped when the political leadership that supported the idea was removed from power.[8] Most recently, the government of Honduras has considered creating a charter city. [9]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Category:Local government Category:Types of country subdivisions Category:Subdivisions of Ethiopia

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