Municipal Government – Charter vs General Law


The power of the vote and the privilege to vote is one thing most conscientious Americans honor and respect. In reality, however, these same Americans recognize that politics can be underhanded, devious and downright dishonest. Being able to recognize a good leader from a slick-talking scoundrel is something else again, like it or not, many voters have been taken in by a campaigner’s charm and wit. Even the most cautious citizens can be wooed by words they want to hear from a defender of a cause dear to their hearts, but the most vulnerable among us are the newly arrived immigrants.

Even in the late 1800s, when immigrants were streaming into the United States by the tens of thousands, the newcomers proved an easy target. Between 1861 and 1914 almost 30 million people came from Europe. If their plight had been difficult before, it was equally difficult in their new surroundings. Much like steerage on the ships that brought them to America’s shores, they were packed into the tenements of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other eastern cities. Unable to speak the language and unaware of their new homeland’s customs, the newcomers were nearly powerless. However, they were given the right to vote regardless of their residency or citizenship status.          

Recognizing the mass of new residents and the power of their vote proved to have a corrupting influence on many politicians of the time. Taking advantage of the deplorable living conditions in the tenements and the ignorance of the new Americans, these evolving big-city “machines”, powerful and unscrupulous, pounced. Unsuspecting and innocent, the immigrants exchanged their votes on the politicians’ pretext of advancing their interests.  

Historically, these same political “gangs” provided us with a number of interesting and colorful people: namely John “Bathhouse” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna of Chicago, “King” James McManes and “Iz” Durham of Philadelphia, James Michael Curley (“Mayor of the Poor”) of Boston, and many more. Perhaps, though, the most notorious character and political machine of all was New York City’s “Tweed Ring”.

A New Yorker by birth, William Marcy Tweed started life as a bookkeeper. Meeting the right people and his extraordinary ambition moved him into the political arena and eventually Congress, but he was happier behind the scenes where he had more control. As chairman of the general committee of Tammany Hall (a political organization) and later as grand sachem, “Boss” Tweed gained absolute power of the state’s Democratic party, controlling all Democratic New York state and city nominations from 1860-1870.

From this position of power Tweed gathered a small group of men who controlled New York City’s finances, Peter Sweeny, city chamberlain; “Slippery Dick” Connolly, city comptroller; and A. Oakey Hall, mayor. At this vantage point, the “machine” controlled the city without interference. They dispensed 60,000 jobs and contracts in return for political support and bribes. Votes were openly bought and other nefarious vote-getting methods were employed. City judges became notoriously corrupt and turned their backs to Tweed’s shenanigans. Meanwhile, through schemes of city improvement, they drained money from the coffers of New York City estimated at anywhere from $30 million to as much as $200 million. Tweed maintained personal popularity because of his openhandedness and charity to the poor.        

His high rude of skullduggery couldn’t last forever and justice awaits everyone. Tweed was arrested and tried for a number of counts, but the jury could not reach a verdict. In a second trial he was convicted and given a 12-year prison sentence. This, however, was reduced by a higher court, and he served one year. Arrested once more on other charges, he escaped and went to Cuba and then to Spain, but was extradited (1876) to the United States. He died in prison two years later.

Determined there had to be a better way to run cities, the California legislature updated its own State Constitution establishing two forms of city government: Charter and General Law. Under the California State Constitution, there is a difference in powers granted to each type of city.

A Charter City, in accordance with the State Constitution, provides the city with authority for “Home Rule”. The State Constitution gives this right of “Home Rule” to any existing city. A charter is akin to a constitution, under which cities create their own government structure and adopt their own governing rules. The adopted rules cannot conflict with the laws of the State or Federal Government. A charter can only be adopted or changed by a majority of voters. Of California’s 477 cities in 2002, 105 are chartered.

A General-Law City is formed under State legislative statutes and governed by a body of laws in the State Constitution. State law permits two basic forms of government in General Law Cities: the Equal Council System and Council-Manager System.

The basic difference between general law and charter cities is found in the degree of control which the state government may exercise over them. Charter cities have more freedom to innovate and to pass ordinances according to local need. General law cities nevertheless also have considerable choice in their form of municipal government, and fairly broad powers over local affairs. Because the legislature has tended to give general law cities the same control over internal matters that the constitution grants to charter cities, the original distinction between the two forms of city authority has been somewhat blurred.

The city of Oakley is a General Law city, operating under the Council-Manager form of government. The council-manager system has become the most popular one in California. It was developed in an effort to avoid the corruption and inefficiency typical of New York City and the rampage of Boss Tweed during the late 1800s.

Under this system, the Council establishes the policies under which the City operates and appoints a trained and experienced City Manager to administer the affairs of the City. The City Manager’s responsibilities include hiring of City staff, preparation of the Annual Budget, administration and coordination of the City’s operations, general supervision over all property under the control of the City, and enforcement of City ordinances and applicable State laws.

The five City Council members are elected at large to overlapping terms of four years and annually select two of their members to serve as Mayor and Vice Mayor. The Mayor represents the City at community functions, serves as the City’s liaison with other governmental agencies, and serves as the presiding officer at council meetings. The Mayor’s vote does not carry any additional weight.

The Council is the legislative body; its members are the community’s decision makers. Power is centralized in the elected Council collectively and not in individual members of the Council. The Council approves the budget and determines the public services to be provided and the taxes, fees and assessments to pay for these public services. It focuses on the community’s goals, major projects and such long term considerations as community growth, General Plan and land use, development standards, capital improvements, financing and strategic planning. The City Council also sits as the governing board of the Redevelopment Agency.

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