Local government has evolved as a phenomenon throughout United Sates history.

Since the 10th Amendment to the United States Constitution makes local government for the most part a matter of state rather than federal law, the states are free to adopt a wide variety of systems of local government.

Among the various types, one of the largest and most diverse forms includes municipal government. Municipal governments include those governments designated as cities, boroughs (except in Alaska), towns (except in Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin), and villages.

The most prominent and perhaps important municipal entity is the city.

According to Lorraine Okabe with the California League of Cities, California acknowledges a total of 480 incorporated cities making California the second largest city-populated state in America.

California cities are granted broad powers under the California Constitution to assert jurisdiction over just about anything, and they cannot be abolished or merged without the consent of a majority of their inhabitants.
An important part in understanding how cities work is understanding their governmental structures.

According to the Institute for Local Self-Government, the Mayor-council, council-manager and commission are the three broad classifications of municipal government in the United States.

In general law cities in California, only the mayor-council and the council-manager are legal organization structures for cities. Furthermore, almost all of California cities have selected the council-manager system.

Below is a list of the three broad systems as well as California cities who practice under those classifications:

Council-Manager Governments
Under the council-manager form of government, the elected governing body (e.g., city council, city commission, board of selectmen or other body of at least three individuals) stands responsible for establishing policy, passing local ordinances, voting appropriations and developing an overall vision for the city.
Under such a government, the mayor (or equivalent executive) performs primarily ceremonial duties and is often drawn from and the presiding officer of the city council or other governing body.
The elected officials then appoint a city manager or administrator to oversee the daily operations of the government and implement the policies established by the governing body. The manager serves the governing body, often with an employment agreement or contract that specifies his or her duties and responsibilities. Ideally, the manager is apolitical.
The council-manager form has proved the most popular form of government used by cities, and the Institute for Local Self Government has stated that in California 440 of the 480 cities operate under the council-manager form of government.

Mayor-Council Governments
A mayor-council city government consists of a mayor and a number of council members or aldermen.
The mayor is elected at large, and the aldermen may be elected at large but generally receives selection from wards or aldermanic districts.
The mayor presides at council meetings and is the chief executive officer of the city. He is properly the head of the police force and the budgetary officer of the city. The council serves as the legislative agent; the proposals and appointments of the mayor are or may be subject to its approval.
Two types of mayor’s have resulted over time in this form of government: weak mayor-councils and strong-mayor councils.
  • In the weak mayor-council type, the mayor is not a chief executive in the true sense. He has limited power in appointments and removals, as well as veto; and a large number of elected officials and boards exist. Many legal powers of the council stifle him from effectively supervising city administration.
  • In the strong mayor-council form, the mayor has the power to appoint and remove most department heads, and only a few officials come about from election. In addition, he prepares the budget for the council’s consideration and has an effective veto power.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, and Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa stand out as two examples of mayors who enjoy the broad power granted in the strong mayor-council system.

According to the California League of Cities, the following cities operate under a strong-mayor council: Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco. (Sacramento is considering adopting this form as of November 2008.)

City-Commissioner Governments

This form once served as most common in the United States. Now, however, cities are no longer directed by commission in California.

In a city commission government, voters elect a small commission of members on a plurality-at-large basis.

These commissioners constitute the legislative body of the city and as a group stand responsible for taxation, appropriations, ordinances, and other general functions. Individual commissioners receive assignment responsibilities for a specific aspect of municipal affairs, such as public works, finance, or public safety.

One commissioner is designated to function as chairman or mayor, but this was largely a procedural or ceremonial designation and typically did not involve significant additional powers beyond that exercised by the other commissioners.

As such, this form of government blends legislative and executive branch functions in the same body.