Introduction to Local Government

Local government and its processes appear complicated, but it isn’t as difficult as you may think. CGA has compiled an introduction to the basics of local government in California – Who they are, What they do and How they do it. In the information below the difference between a county and a city are explained, how meetings are conducted is explored and the type of action local governments can take is outlined.

The Institute for Local Government is the research and education affiliate of the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities. The information below is compiled from their publication Understanding the Basics of Local Agency Decision-Making. View the full document and information about ILG.

Please contact CGA’s Local Government Relations Staff for additional information a about local government, their interactions with the grocery industry or with any questions or for additional information.



Counties play a dual role in California’s system of government. California is divided into 58 counties.

Countywide Services – Counties provide a variety of important county-wide health, welfare and social services that serve all residents within a county. In these respects, counties are part of a statewide system that delivers certain kinds of programs and services to Californians.

Counties’ district attorneys work with county sheriffs and city police departments to prosecute crimes.

Municipal Services and Regulations – For those areas that are not within a city (often referred to as the “unincorporated areas” of a county), counties provide law enforcement services through the sheriff’s office. For these areas, counties may also provide such services as fire protection, animal control, parks, recreation, public works (including roads), planning and land use, water, waste water, solid waste, and library—services that are similar to those cities provide within their boundaries (known as the incorporated areas). Sometimes counties and cities provide these services collaboratively. Sometimes these services may be provided by a private company or by a special district.

Counties also have regulatory authority within the unincorporated areas (such as land use planning authority and building code enforcement). This includes the power to adopt regulations to promote the public good within those areas.

For more Information about Counties see the California State Association of Counties’ website.



California has nearly 500 cities. Within city boundaries, cities have responsibility for such services as police and fire, animal control, parks, public works, water, waste water, solid waste, and library. Sometimes these services may be provided by the city itself or by the county, a special district or a private company.

Cities also have authority to adopt regulations that promote the public good within city limits. These include regulations relating to land use and building code enforcement.

For More Information about Cities see the League of California Cities’ website.



Special districts are public agencies created to provide one or more specific services to a community, such as water service, sewer service, parks, fire protection and others.

Dependent Special Districts. Sometimes the governing board of either a city or county will also serve as decision-makers for a special district. These kinds of special districts are called “dependent special districts.”
Independent Special Districts. Other special districts operate under a locally elected, independent board of directors, which oversees district functions. These kinds of special districts are called “independent special districts.”
Most special districts perform a single function, such as water service, parks and recreation, fire protection, pest abatement or cemetery management. Other districts have multiple functions, such as community service districts. Some special districts provide services for residents in both cities and counties, while others provide services only for residents who live outside city boundaries in the unincorporated areas.

In California, cities must be located in one county, and city boundaries may not cross county lines. On the other hand, special districts may cross city and county boundaries. For example, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California serves residents in six different counties and most of the cities within those counties.

For more information about Special Districts see the California Special Districts Association’s website.


California’s local agencies have been operating under open meeting laws since 1953. Known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, the law basically requires:

Majorities of decision-making bodies may not decide among themselves on issues within their agencies’ jurisdictions except in open and publicized meetings.

Agencies must publicize when and where meetings will occur, as well as what will be discussed, so the public can observe those meetings;

The public has a right to be heard on matters on the agenda before decisions are made;

The public also has a general right to address agency decision-makers on items of concern to them, even if they aren’t on the agenda (typically called the “public comment period” on agendas).

No action can be taken by the decision-making body until such item has been placed on the agenda for consideration.

The principles of open government were added to California’s Constitution in 2005. Although the basic concepts are straight­forward, the law itself is very complex with a variety of direc­tions about how these principles should be carried out and a number of exceptions.

For more detail about the open meeting laws, see Open and Public IV: A Guide to the Ralph M. Brown Act.

Local Government Basic Procedure

Generally, the procedure for discussing and resolving an issue at an agency meeting occurs along the following lines:

1. Item Agendized. The item is placed on the agenda

An agency’s rules of procedure usually say how items get placed on the agenda;

The state’s open meetings laws generally forbid off-agenda items from being discussed and acted upon;

2. Item Called. At the appropriate time on the agenda, the presiding official takes up the item for discussion;

3. Presentation. An agency staff member or other person presents an overview of the item, together with a recommendation to approve or deny the item;

4. Questions. Members of the decision-making body ask any questions of the presenter;

5. Public Comment. The presiding official asks whether anyone in the audience wants to comment on this item, giving the public the opportunity to address the item;

To allow everyone time to speak, many agencies have a time limit for each speaker;

6. Discussion. Members of the decision-making body discuss the item

There may be a motion to discuss;

If a member of the decision-making body wishes to suggest a change to the item (for example, an ordinance under discussion for adoption), he or she proposes the change, which the body then discusses;

7. Motion. A member of the decision-making body makes a motion to approve or deny the item;

8. Second. Another member of the decision-making body “seconds” the motion;

9. Vote. The body votes; and

10. Announcement. The presiding official or agency clerk announces the result of the vote. Staff then typically follows up, taking the steps necessary to implement the action.



Local agencies make local laws through ordinances. Ordinances typically require or prohibit certain actions under certain circumstances. A local agency’s ordinances are frequently indexed and recorded into a “code.” These codes become part of the city or county’s legislative history and may prove useful even many years after adopted. As access to technology improves, many local agencies publish and/or make their codes available online.

Drafting. Typically, an agency’s staff, along with the help or oversight of the agency’s attorney, will prepare a preliminary ordinance for review by the decision-making body and the public. This also enables staff to be aware of and help the agency comply with any special notice requirements that may apply to that particular kind of ordinance.

Timing Issues. There is usually a waiting period between the time the ordinance is first considered by that body (known as the “introduction” of the ordinance) and second or final presentation of the ordinance during which it is considered by the governing body for adoption. This introduction process is also known as the first “reading” of the proposed ordinance, because it is the first opportunity decision-makers have to consider the merits of the proposed ordinance. In some limited circumstances, urgency and certain other types of ordinances can be adopted at the time of their introduction without going through a later waiting period.

Making Revisions during the Adoption Process. Sometimes decision-makers will ask staff to revise the proposed ordinance. Such changes may respond to ideas or concerns expressed by decision-makers or the public; changes may also result in language that a majority of the decision-making body can support. If substantive changes are made to a proposed ordinance after it is first introduced, it generally will need to be re-introduced and another waiting period must pass before the modified ordinance can be adopted. These steps both ensure that laws are drafted as carefully as possible and that a full and open review of the ordinance occurs that permits the public to review and comment on the proposed law prior to its approval.

Adoption. After the initial “reading” and waiting period have occurred, the ordinance is then presented at a subsequent meeting for second reading. A member of the decision-making body moves for approval of the ordinance. If the motion receives a second, the body votes on whether to adopt the ordinance.

Effective Date. Most ordinances are effective 30 days after the date of adoption. Staff will typically take care of any requirements for publicizing the ordinance’s adoption during this period (for example, by publishing the ordinance in a newspaper and adding the ordinance to the agency’s code).


A resolution is a legal action by a decision-making body, such as setting fees and adopting policies. It can also be a vehicle through which the body expresses its opinion on a matter.

Resolutions are formal actions by the decision-making body and are retained as part of the agency’s record. Compared to ordinances, though, resolutions involve fewer procedural requirements. For example, they do not have to be “introduced” and “adopted” over the space of two meetings but may be adopted at one meeting. Furthermore, with limited exceptions (for example, setting tax rates), resolutions do not have to be published in a newspaper.


Local agencies do not always have to adopt an ordinance or resolution to take action. For less important actions, local agencies also may act by motion, which may be summarized in a minute order. Typically, the agenda materials will describe the action that is proposed to be taken.

These actions, along with others at the meeting, are memorialized in the record of the meeting (the minutes). Once approved by the body, the minutes become the official record of the meeting. The agency’s secretary or clerk maintains the official records of the


In California, the public also plays a role in the decision-making process by voting on ballot measures. The rules relating to placing matters on the ballot are both complex and technical. Ballot measure proponents are well advised to seek advice from experienced attorneys and political consultants on these matters to avoid missteps.

Referendum. If members of the community disagree with a legislative act approved by elected officials, then they can circulate a petition to put the matter on the ballot for the voters to decide whether the law should be repealed. This is called a “referendum” because the petition requires the matter to be referred to the voters for approval. The petition process must occur within a short window of time before the law goes into effect.

When a successful referendum petition occurs, a governing body has two choices. It can repeal the law that is the subject of the referendum petition. If the repeal occurs, it becomes unnecessary for the matter to go to a community vote. Otherwise the body must put the matter on a ballot for a vote.

Initiative. The public may also propose a new law (or an amendment to an existing law). To do that, they circulate petitions that must include a copy of the proposed law. If enough people sign the petition, the governing body must either adopt the proposed law without change or put the matter on the ballot for a community vote. This process is known as the “initiative” process, because members of the community are initiating the legislative proposal.