Some Citizens Initiate Dialogue about Changing Format of City Government
• Malibu Needs to Be Charter City for Voters to Elect Mayor
BY BILL KOENEKER
Former Malibu City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich returned to the council chambers this week to ask her colleagues to allow voters to choose what she called a weak mayor system or a strong one —meaning to either continue the mayoral post as a ceremonial position or open it up to the citizens to chose their own mayor, who would run the city much like a CEO.
"The time has come to explore the strong mayor form of government. We could elect the mayor to two or four year terms. You have the power to put it on the ballot," she said.
Experts say it works in a different way. California municipalities are either formed as charter or general-law cities.
General-law municipal power is defined by the state's government code. Charter municipalities may have amendments to the state code and different regulations created by the charter, which requires a popular vote.
During the meeting, some council members commented on Conley Ulich's challenge.
"I'm perfectly happy to see it on the ballot. I like democracy," said Councilmember John Sibert, who added, "It is not really a weak mayor or strong mayor. That is somewhat pejorative."
Councilmember Skylar Peak said, "I'm for a strong mayor system, but it has to be well-thought out."
Most small cities have a council-manager form of government, where the elected city council appoints a city manager to supervise the operations of the city.
Some larger cities have a directly-elected mayor who oversees the city government. In many council-manager cities, the city council selects one of its members as mayor, sometimes by rotation through the council membership—but this type of mayoral position is primarily ceremonial.
The city manager position in this form of municipal government is similar to that of CEO, providing professional management to the board of directors, the city council.
In council-manager government, the elected council appoints a city manager, the council then makes major decisions and wields representative power on behalf of the citizens.
This system of government is used in 40.1 percent of American cities with populations of 2500 or more, according to the 2011 Municipal Yearbook published by the International City/County Management Association.
A charter city is a city in which the governing system is defined by the city's own charter document rather than by the state.
These cities may be administered predominately by citizens or through third-party management structure, because a charter gives a city the flexibility to choose novel types of government structure.
In California, cities that have not adopted a charter are organized by state law. Such a city is called a general law city, which will be managed by a five-member city council. A city organized under a charter may choose different systems, including the "strong mayor" or "city manager" forms of government.
As of June 2008, 112 of the state's 478 cities are charter cities such as Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Irvine.
Former Mayor Walt Keller recalled that Malibu had no choice in picking whether they wanted to be a charter or general law city. "All new cities are city manager-council cities. We did not have a choice," he said.
Keller referred to the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, for how the voters could make the changes.
LAFCO executive officer Paul Novak said a municipality has to become a charter city in order to have the strong mayor type of government.
"It requires a vote of the people," he said, explaining LAFCO has nothing to do with any kind of change over.
Novak said he remembers that Lancaster voted to become a charter city several years ago.
Experts note that charter cities are often founded with a goal of large-scale urban development, efficient use of the city's limited resources and is of utmost important for the economic sustainability of the citizens and government units.
One example of the abuse of the charter system was in Bell, California. The charter was created after a little-noticed special election, where few voters understood what becoming a charter city meant. After a charter was approved, state laws limiting city salary no longer applied and City Manager Robert Rizzo gave himself a salary of $1.5 million for managing a city of about 36,000 people.
In states, including California, where city charters are allowed by law, a city can adopt or modify its organizing charter by decision of its administration by the way established in the charter.
Incorporated cities and towns have the power to levy taxes. They are responsible for providing police service, zoning, issuing building permits, and maintaining public streets.
Municipalities may also provide parks, public housing and various utility services, though all of these are sometimes provided by special districts and some utilities are provided privately.