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Unincorporated California's Governance

It's as American as apple pie to complain about government, a tradition that goes way back to when our great nation was under colonial rule. It is easy to blame"politicians" for just about everything, but what does that mean? If you remember anything from your citizenship and government classes, you know the answer is not simple. Our "government" consist of many layers (federal, state and local) each of which has three functional branches: legislative, executive and judicial. Within that framework, there are plenty of local quirks and nuances across the many counties that host our coalition's communities.

So if you are looking for simple answers about your specific area's governmental arrangements, you won't find them here. What we present instead are some tools you can use to discover the governance of your area.

 Federal Government 

State Government

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California is big and complex. It's governance structure can be hard to figure out.
  • Legislative Branch: State Senate and State Assembly. To identify your members of the Legislature, enter your address on this page. Use caution, the page requires you to enter your "city", which is confusing for people who live in unincorporated areas. If you enter an unincorporated community name where the form asks for your "city" and enter your zip code, the data base will search using your postal address, which might be a city your don't live in (using Sacramento if you live in unincorporated Foothill Farms or Antelope) or an unincorporated place that isn't a city (like Castro Valley or Carmichael), which confuses many people into thinking those places are cities. Fortunately, a number of state legislators have websites that list the various cities and unincorporated areas within their districts along with the populations of those places. That makes it easy to see whether or not those legislators recognize and care about unincorporated communities in their district.
  • Executive Branch: The elected officials are the Governor, Lt. GovernorSecretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Controller, Insurance Commisisoner, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and members of the Board of Equalization. There are over 230 state administrative agencies.
  • Judicial Branch: Similar to the federal system, California has trial courts and appellate courts. There are 58 Superior Courts (1 for each county) that function as both trial courts and municipal courts, 6 Courts of Appeals and the State Supreme Court. Through state ballot propositions, Superior Courts were merged with Municipal Courts that used to handle lower-level cases like small claims or traffic violations. Superior courts used to be entirely funded by counties. Proposition 13 made it very difficult for counties to pay all required court expenses. Eventually, through state legislation and other propositions, the state took over paying for the costs. That resulted in annual state budget bickering over which costs and how much is enough. For example, were county Sheriffs' retirement costs to be paid by the state or the county? And how many Sheriffs are needed to make a judge feel "safe".

Local Government - a mix of counties, cities, special districts, school districts and community college districts, each with their own legislative, executive and judicial branch functions

  • There are 58 counties in California. Under our state constitution, counties have no choice but to do whatever the state tells them to do. San Francisco is the only one with a combined city/county government. The other 57 counties have cities and unincorporated areas. In addition to their county-wide duties, County Boards of Supervisors function as the municipal government for the unincorporated communities in their county. When most of the residents of unincorporated areas were cows and trees, having the county run local municipal affairs sort of worked; these days, that's not the case. Law enforcement for unincorporated areas is provided by County Sheriffs and the CA Highway Patrol. The Sheriffs and the CHP are under-resourced to do that; unincorporated areas are their lowest priorities.
  • There are 482 cities in California. In California, cities have broad powers of self-government that counties do not have. Residents of unincorporated communities are denied self-government; they do not have Mayors and City Councils to focus on local priorities. Our coalition believes the residents of unincorporated urbanized areas deserve the same rights and privileges that the residents of the 482 existing cities enjoy. Since 2011, state policies about the formation of new municipalities have prevented new cities from being formed. It is high time to provide fairness and equality for residents of unincorporated areas.
  • There are over 2000 special districts in California that provide specified, focused, public services within a defined local area; they are not constrained by city or county boundaries. The services - such as fire supression, airports, libraries, parks and recreation, water supply, sewage collection and disposal, veterans affairs, electrical power, or cemetaries - vary considerably depending on local need as defined by the voters. Special districts are NOT cities, counties, nor are they financing mechanisms like Mello-Roos Districts. Cities and counties are general purpose governments. Cities and counties perform a broad array of services to protect the health, safety, and welfare of all their citizens. Special districts are limited purpose local governments that provide only the services their residents stipulate. Most special districts are independent districts, with governing bodies elected directly by the constituents of the geographic area served by the district. Certain types of special districts, called dependent districts, require that the city council or county supervisors serve as their governing boards. Our coalition is grateful for, and supportive of, the special districts that provide services to unincorporated communities. There is an interactive map that shows the boundary lines of special districts in California.
  • There are 939 public school districts in California of various types, each with their own elected governing bodies. Each county has an Office of Education that is supposed to oversee the local districts and provide them with certain services. Similarly, there are 73 community college districts across the state that operate 116 community college campuses.

The unincorporated community of Arden Arcade in Sacramento County has published an example of how the mix of goverments plays out in an unincorporated community. Though there would clearly be differences elsewhere in the state, the Arden Arcade example demonstrates the complexities of local governance in California.


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