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What Makes a California City? Local Self-Government Is the Goal, But it Doesn’t Come Easy

What makes a place in California a “city” and what are the benefits of being one?

PUBLISHED NOV 10, 2022 10:56 P.M.
California has three cities of more than 1 million people, and 187 of over 50,000.

California has three cities of more than 1 million people, and 187 of over 50,000.

Adam Derewecki / Pixabay   Pixabay License

Glance at a map, and California looks like a heavily rural state. About 80 percent of the state’s land mass is classified as “rural.” You may never know from a map that California is one of the most heavily urban states in the country.

About one in every four of California’s 39 million residents lives in one of the state’s 10 most populous cities. And about 94 percent of all people in the state live in urban areas. California is one of only two states, the other being Texas, with more than one city of over 1 million people. 

California has three: Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose.

But if a “city” is defined as an incorporated area with a population of at least 50,000, California is dotted with 187 of them, based on data from the United States Census Bureau’s 2021 Population Estimates Program. That’s almost one of every four 50,000-plus cities in the United States. Of those, 77 have populations of more than 100,000—also approximately 25 percent of all cities that size in the country.

California’s physical geography, on the other hand,  is pretty much in the middle of the pack in terms of urbanization. Only 5 percent of the land is considered urban. That’s a lower percentage of urban territory than 22 other states (though more than 26). In California, half the population lives in four counties—Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, and San Bernardino.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of California's urbanization is how quickly it happened. The East Coast of the U.S. had a big head start, and by 1920 the populations of New York City and Philadelphia, for example, topped 5.6 million and 1.8 million respectively. 

At the same time, Los Angeles was already California’s most populated metropolis, but it was home to a relatively meager 577,000 people. Today Los Angeles remains the state’s largest city with nearly 3.85 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

California’s least populous city is Vernon, with a mere 222 residents. That’s because the city, just southeast of Los Angeles, was developed primarily as a place for industry. Vernon’s checkered past made it a model for the corrupt, fictional city of “Vinci” in the HBO crime series True Detective. But since 2011 the city has put a series of sweeping reforms in place, and is now looking to develop new housing as well.

What Does it Mean to Be a California City?

There may be only 187 municipalities in California with populations over 50,000, but there are many more cities than that. In fact, the state has 482 incorporated cities and towns—including San Francisco, which is both a city and a county. Some communities are cities while others—just 21 in California—are towns.

On top of that, there are more than 1,000 census-designated places, which, though they are communities where people live and work, are neither cities nor towns. They have no state-recognized borders or independent governments. Their boundaries are filled in by the U.S. Census Bureau solely for the purpose of compiling data.

For governmental functions, these “places” rely on the counties in which they reside. Or they depend on special districts, created under state law to provide a wide range of specific services from water and firefighting, to recreation and even mosquito control. About 18 percent of the state’s population lives in unincorporated communities.

What makes a city a city? Well, first of all, size does not matter. The Santa Clara County community of Los Gatos is a “town,” with a population of more than 32,000, while Apple Valley in San Bernardino County boasts more than 72,000 people, yet remains a town as well. The difference is in the paperwork. The decision whether to be a city or a town is up to the local governing council. Those elected officials must approve the selection of nomenclature by an 80 percent supermajority.

Why Become a City?

The clearest benefit of cityhood is self-government—the foundation of the democratic system.

“Local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach,” wrote Alexis De Tocqueville in his classic 1838 work Democracy in America. “They teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but without the spirit of municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.”

In that spirit of local institutions, a city is governed by a city council with members elected by local voters either on an at-large basis—that is, all candidates run citywide—or by district with one councilmember representing each district. As of May 2020, according to the National Demographics Corporation, 155 California cities had converted to the district system while the remainder maintained the at-large method.

While most of the state’s largest cities also elect a mayor as the city’s chief executive officer, most (440, according to the California government news site Public CEO) employ a city manager rather than an elected mayor.

A city manager serves solely as an administrator, and unlike a mayor has no official influence over city policy, though the council may rely on its city manager to provide research and information, or even make recommendations to aid the elected officials in making policy decisions. A manager acts as, in effect, a chief assistant to the city council and its individual members. It is the manager’s job to make sure policies agreed upon by a majority vote of the council are properly implemented.

The Long Road to Cityhood

But to call itself a city or town in the first place, a community must incorporate. The state capital of Sacramento is also the oldest incorporated city, earning that distinction in 1850, the same year that California became a state.

Today, incorporation means going through a rigorous and complicated process with the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) in the county where the community sits (each census-designated place must be contained within a single county). Before a community can even apply for incorporation, at least 25 percent of registered voters there (a community must have a minimum of 500 registered voters to qualify at all) must sign a petition stating their desire to make their community a city.

Once that’s done, a process that can take up to eight months, then the initial application begins. At the top of the application, the citizens of the “place” must give a detailed explanation of their reasons for wanting cityhood. Those could range from the desire for local control over services and government functions, to the need to raise new tax revenue, to increasing government accountability by establishing a local city council.

Applicants must also perform an extensive fiscal review of their plans, designate boundaries for their proposed city, and come up with a full plan for how to provide local services such as water and sewer, law enforcement, and land use planning.

Finally, a community must pay the application fee, which historically has ranged as high as $150,000. Then, and only then, does the county LAFCO take a look at the application. That process can also take months, and requires public hearings. 

State’s ‘De Facto Moratorium’ on New Cities

Only four new cities have incorporated since 2004, and none since 2011. The last one was Jurupa Valley, a city of 106,000 in Riverside County.

In 2011, the legislature—in a last-minute move in a legislative session driven by the state’s fiscal crisis of the time—rammed through SB 89, a bill that took away about $190 million in funds previously allocated to cities through the state’s Vehicle Licensing Fees, diverting the cash to other programs.

SB 89 made it financially impossible to incorporate new cities, and threatened the viability of the state’s four newest incorporated cities. The money just wasn’t available anymore. In 2017, however, a new bill, SB 130, took property tax money and sent it to those four cities to help them compensate for the shortfall.

But SB 89 remains in place, and according to League of California Cities Legislative Director Dan Carrigg, the law imposes a “de facto moratorium” on the incorporation of new cities.

“The passage of SB 89, however, which removed a major funding source relied upon by incorporating areas, must be addressed by the Legislature,” Carrigg wrote in an op-ed for Western City magazine. “Or it is unlikely California will have any new cities in the future.”

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