The Difference Between a Charter City and a General Law City

California state law dictates that cities may be organized under either the general laws of the State or under a charter adopted by the local voters. This authority is set forth in the California Government Code commencing with Section 34100.

Cities that are organized under the general laws of the State (Section 34102) have less autonomy than those that adopt their own charter (Section 34101). General law cities follow the laws set forth in the Government Code commencing with Section 34000.

Cities that adopt their own charter, may adopt their own procedures for matters that are considered “municipal affairs.” The California Constitution grants charter cities the power to make and enforce all ordinances and resolutions with respect to municipal affairs (California Constitution Article XI, Section 5(a)). This is commonly referred to as the “home rule” provision. Typical examples of municipal affairs include the manner of conducting local elections and the city’s dealings with its municipal officers and employees.

The procedures a city must follow for adopting its own charter commence at Section 34450. The charter is a written document that operates as the city’s “constitution.” Just as the California Constitution controls the actions of the State, a city’s charter operates as the constitution of the city. The charter may be amended or repealed by subsequent votes of the residents. An amendment may be proposed either by the city council or by initiative submitted to the council by the voters.

While adopting a charter gives a city control over its municipal affairs, charter cities are subject to the same state laws as general law cities on matters considered to be of “statewide concern.” What constitutes a municipal affair as opposed to a matter of statewide concern is a fluid concept. Over time, what was once viewed as a municipal affair can subsequently become a matter of statewide concern. If the State legislature or the voters of the State declare a matter to be one of statewide concern, any local charter provision or ordinance governing that area becomes preempted by the subsequent State legislation.

Of the approximately 481 incorporated cities and towns in the State of California, only 86 are charter cities. The State’s largest cities, namely San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco are charter cities.

San Luis Obispo is the only charter city in San Luis Obispo County. While the City was first incorporated in 1856, the City did not become a charter city until 1876. The City of San Luis Obispo’s charter has been amended several times. In 1955 the City performed the last comprehensive update of the City’s charter. The City’s charter is posted on the City’s website at

Heather K. Whitham

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(805) 546-8785 (Phone)

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