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Charter vs. general law
There's more than one way to govern a county. There are two basic ways, to be precise: General law and charter.
As explained by the League of Women Voters of California, general law counties are governed by state statutes specifying what county officers are elected and what their duties include.
Charter counties, however, are government not just by state statutes, but by a charter, a document permitted by Article 11 of the state Constitution that allows some flexibility on the structure and governance of the county.
According to the 2001 study "The Prospects for Charter County Reform in California" by Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton, county charters in California can date their roots to the Progressive Era. In 1911, voters amended the state Constitution to permit cities and counties to have charters. California was the first state in the nation to permit charter counties to be formed. Almost immediately after the constitutional revisions, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties became charters, the Sonenshein study reports.
Specifically, the Constitution says a county charter must provide for a governing body, such as the Sutter County Board of Supervisors, of five or more members; the pay, terms of office and requirement for removal from office of that governing body; and an elected sheriff, district attorney and assessor. Outside of that, charter counties can structure their government any way they wish.
However, the Sonenshein study notes, California counties have generally not strayed far from general law in their structure, outside of the city-county hybrid government of San Francisco.
"Not a single California county has an elected county executive, if we exclude the mayor of San Francisco. ... Other than San Francisco, which has 11 city-county supervisors, all 57 other California counties have exactly 5 members of the county board of supervisors, even though the state Constitution only requires that charter counties have a minimum of 5 board members," the study said.
Of the 58 counties in California, 44 are general law and 14 are charter. But those 14 include eight of the 10 most populous counties in California. Based on 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, more than 70 percent of California's residents live in a charter county. Tehama County is the only charter county with fewer residents than Sutter County.
But if Ron Southard and other Sutter County reformers have their way, the number of charter counties will soon change to 15.