- How are counties formed?
- What is a general law county?
What is a charter county?
What is a consolidated county?
County Board of Supervisors
- How is the county board of supervisors elected?
- What is the function of the county board of supervisors?
Who is in charge of the county government?
- What services are managed by the board of supervisors?
- What services are provided for unincorporated areas ?
- What judicial functions are performed by the board of supervisors?
Municipal Advisory Councils
County Government Administration
- What is a county chief administrative officer?
What is a county manager?
What is a county executive?
- What is a county clerk?
- What is a county recorder?
- What is a county counsel?
- What is the county civil service system? What is a county personnel board?
- What is a county public administrator?
- What is a county chief financial officer?
What is a county auditor?
What is a county directory of finance?
- What is a county treasurer?
- What is a county assessor? The assessor appraises property in the county which is subject to taxation.
- What is the county tax collector? The tax collector collects all county taxes and deposits them with the treasurer.
- Where does a county get it's money?
- What is a planning commission? Who regulates land use within a county?
- How are new local governments and districts formed?
What is a local agengy formation commission (LAFCO)?
How are boundaries for cities and districts changed?
County Law Enforcement
- What are the duties of a sherriff?
Who provides law enforcement for unincorporated areas?
- What are the duties of the county district attorney?
- What are the duties of the public defender?
- What are the duties of the county coroner?
- What are the duties of the chief probation officer?
- What courts are part of county government?
- What is a justice court judge?
Public Health and Welfare
- Who provides medical services for indigent people (those who cannot pay)?
- What is the function of a county public health department?
- Who administers welfare programs mandated by state and federal law?
- What is the general relief program for financial aid to needy individuals?
Public County Libraries
Other County Officials
In its beginning decades, California state government performed relatively few functions, assigning to counties the responsibility for governmental services which the legislature designated as necessary. Thus, counties were the governmental units which built roads, maintained jails, cared for the poor and kept records on property and statistics on people. Today, counties perform greatly expanded services. Some counties provide services not only mandated by the state, but assumed under laws giving counties the option of providing additional services appropriate to local circumstances.
Counties are geographical and political subdivisions of the state and thus serve as important administrative units for state and often federal laws, programs and services. In fact, more than 55 percent of county revenues come from these two sources. As agents of state government, with the same functions delegated to all of them, counties are subject to extensive state administrative supervision and regulation. At the same time, counties still have some local autonomy. County government is in the hands of elected officials responsible to local citizens. These officials deal with needs, wants and resources which differ greatly from county to county.
The years have seen changes in the boundaries of counties. While they are stable, they are not immutable. During the state's first 60 years, the original 27 counties of 1850 became 58. Although legally possible, forming a new county is politically difficult.
In 1974, the legislature eased the procedural requirements but every one of the eight attempts has failed. The state constitution requires that formation of a new county must be approved by a majority of those voting on the question in each county concerned.
The state constitution provides for three classes of county government: general law, charter, or consolidated city and county (which must be a charter unit). There are 12 charter counties: Alameda, Butte, Fresno, Los Angeles, Placer, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco (the only city-county), San Mateo, Santa Clara and Tehama. The procedures for adoption or amendment of county charters are the same as for city charters.
The main difference between general law and charter counties lies in the way they can organize and select their county governing bodies and officers. Every county is required to elect a governing body -- a board of supervisors. General law counties elect supervisors by district, while charter counties have the option of electing them at large or by district Except for the constitutional requirement that every county elect a sheriff, district attorney and an assessor, charter counties have considerable freedom when drafting their charters to determine what other officers they will have, their powers and duties, and whether they will be elected or appointed. Although general law counties have been granted some flexibility, they do not have the latitude of charter counties regarding officers. General law counties are regulated by statutes which specify their principal officers, assign their duties and require that they be elected by the people. The law, however, permits boards of supervisors to consolidate these elective offices into any of 25 combinations and to appoint additional officers, but prohibits the supervisors from giving appointed officials the responsibilities assigned by law to elected officials.
County Board of Supervisors
California counties have five supervisors elected for four-year staggered terms on a nonpartisan ballot, except for the city-county of San Francisco, which has 11 supervisors and a mayor. If a supervisorial position becomes vacant between elections, it is filled by the governor in general law counties. Charter counties may make other provisions for filling vacancies. In all counties, supervisorial district boundaries must be adjusted after each federal census so that the population of all districts is as nearly equal as possible.
The supervisors are also responsible for providing some municipal-type services for residents of unincorporated areas. These include planning, zoning and land-use regulation, street maintenance, and in some cases sewage disposal, water, parks and recreational facilities and other municipal services. Policy decisions on the degree of service lie with the board of supervisors. Highly urbanized unincorporated areas may have the same service needs as conventional cities. These needs are frequently met by formation of special districts.
The board of supervisors also has some quasi-judicial functions. For example, in many counties supervisors serve as the tax assessment appeals board and as the planning and land-use appeal body.
Municipal Advisory Councils
In recognition of the need by unincorporated communities for increased influence with their county boards of supervisors, municipal advisory councils have been organized in some counties under authorization of a 1971 legislative statute. Such a council is an advisory body of local citizens elected by the community or appointed by the board of supervisors with the purpose of representing the community to the board. Although a municipal advisory council is a governing body, it has no fiscal authority or administrative organization. Because it lacks authority to implement its position directly, it seeks to accomplish its goals through county government.
These councils face two ways: toward the county, offering the views of the community; and toward the community, supplying information about county proposals and a place where individuals can air opinions on community problems and perhaps receive help. The councils hold public meetings, survey community opinion and speak for the community to the board of supervisors. The most common subject of activity is land-use planning. The county often uses the group as a planning advisory council to draft or revise the community's portion of the county general plan.
County Government Administration
A chief administrative officer is appointed by the board of supervisors in most of the counties in the state. This officer is responsible for implementing board decisions, preparing the county budget, carrying out studies to provide the supervisors with information needed in making decisions and generally coordinating county administration. Although the county officer is often called "county manager" or "county executive," there is a legal distinction. Only charter counties may establish the position of county manager or executive, and in these cases the officer has more authority than a chief administrative officer who is essentially the agent of the board of supervisors.
Historically, the county clerk serves as the registrar of voters, ex-officio clerk of the board of supervisors, ex-officio clerk of the Superior Court and performs a variety of other functions such as issuing marriage licenses, processing passport applications and filing fictitious business names. In some counties, all of these functions have been retained by a single county officer; in others, the functions have been split into two or more offices.
The county recorder keeps records of births, deaths, marriages, all instruments recording real property and other documents required by law. In some counties, this office is combined with that of the county clerk.
By charter or by ordinance approved by the electorate, a county may adopt a civil service system administered by an independent personnel board. Most counties have some form of civil service covering most of the non-elected personnel. Some counties arrange with the state Personnel Board for merit system assistance. All counties provide some kind of retirement plan for officials and employees, either by contract with the Public Employees' Retirement System or through an independent retirement system.
The public administrator is responsible for the administration of the estates of persons deceased without apparent heirs. On appointment by the court, the public administrator serves as guardian for people -- often minors or the elderly-who are not competent to manage their affairs and lack private assistance.
The chief financial officer of the county is the auditor or director of finance. The auditor monitors the financial records of all county departments, reports on the state of the county's finances and authorizes expenditures by warrants.
The treasurer is custodian of the county's money, pays county obligations on warrant from the auditor and assists in the collection of taxes.
Total revenues received and collected by county government can be classified into five distinct categories. These categories, ranked from highest to lowest in terms of revenue are: state government, 31 percent; property taxes, 21 percent; federal government, 17 percent; enterprise receipts, 13 percent; and, charges for current services, eight percent. The balance is comprised of a variety of revenue sources.
A planning agency is mandatory in all counties. Every county except Kern County has a planning commission appointed by the supervisors. The planning commission prepares and maintains a general plan for physical development of the county and reviews development plans for environmental impact. The commission is advisory to the supervisors, who approve and implement recommendations and hear appeals in disputes between citizens and the commission. State law allows the supervisors to appoint "area planning commissions" to plan and regulate land use within distinct communities.
A local agency formation commission is also mandatory, although it is not a county body but an independent commission consisting of representatives from the county, cities and the general public. In some counties, special districts also sit on LAFCO. Proposals for boundary changes such as municipal incorporation and annexation and formation or dissolution of independent special districts require LAFCO approval. LAFCOs must also adapt long-range service plans called "spheres of influence" for each city and special district in their county.
County Law Enforcement
The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in all unincorporated territory. The sheriff apprehends law violators and may be in charge of the jail and other custodial facilities. Other duties include implementing programs to prevent crime, reduce delinquency and rehabilitate criminals.
The district attorney is the public prosecutor and in counties without a county counsel performs the counsel's duties as well. The district attorney prosecutes those accused of crimes and presents evidence of crime to the grand jury.
A public defender is appointed or contracted for in most counties to defend people who are charged with offenses but are unable to pay for attorney services. The defender may bring civil cases on behalf of indigents for claims not over $100 or defend them in civil suits if no other legal aid is available.
The coroner investigates causes of deaths occurring without medical attention under violent or unusual circumstances. When the cause of death is uncertain, a coroner's jury may be called to see if further action is warranted.
The chief probation officer is responsible for monitoring persons placed on probation by the courts. In addition, the probation department may have the responsibility of administering one or more alternative sentencing programs, such as home detention.
Every county has a Superior Court which consists of a specified number of judges as prescribed by the legislature. Municipalities with populations of 40,000 or more may have at least one municipal court. The number of municipal court judges per county is specified and prescribed by the legislature.
Counties that do not have population centers of the size warranting municipal court judges may have justice court judges. justice court judges generally are found in the state's rural counties or in isolated areas in larger counties, such as the Santa Catalina Justice Court in Los Angeles County.
Public Health and Welfare
Pursuant to statutory mandate, counties provide medical services for medically indigent people. The system of indigent medical care varies from county to county and may involve county hospitals and clinics, contracts with private hospitals and clinics or a mixture of both public and private facilities. Some small counties contract with the state for provision of indigent medical care services in a system similar to Medi-Cal.
County public health departments provide an array of services for people of all ages, including emergency medical services, infectious disease control, immunizations, public health labs, drug and alcohol abuse prevention/intervention/treatment, tobacco education, child health screenings/treatment, dental services, home health services, family planning, perinatal services, special services for seniors, AIDS testing/ counseling/ education and vital statistics.
Environmental health, air pollution control and animal control are county responsibilities and may be included in the health department.
A major responsibility of the supervisors is the administration of welfare programs mandated by state and federal law. Before 1991, funding for these programs was largely provided by the state. In 1991, landmark legislation was passed by the legislature which shifted responsibility and funding for health, mental health and various social services programs from the state to counties. Each year, 40 percent of county expenditures is for public assistance. County welfare departments administer programs overseen by the state Health and Welfare Agency. These departments determine eligibility and benefits in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medi-Cal and Food Stamp programs. County welfare departments also deliver social services to eligible persons in need of child care, family planning, health and homemaker services. They offer protective services to adults and children and are required to provide such services as foster care to children in danger of abuse and exploitation. Welfare departments also license care facilities and provide information and referral to anyone regardless of eligibility. In addition to mandated programs, some counties also provide emergency housing, legal assistance, sustenance programs and adoption services.
All counties are required to administer a general relief program that gives financial aid to needy individuals who are not served by established state and federal programs. Counties receive federal and state funds for support of many programs but each county must fund its own general relief program.
Some counties employ a director of public works to assume responsibility for county buildings, roads, solid waste disposal and other physical facilities such as sewage treatment or flood control and drainage projects.
A county surveyor conducts surveys where necessary for the overall public interest of having an adequate system of monuments, keeps survey records and supplies copies of maps required by the recorder's office. In some counties, the surveyor is also the county engineer. This office may also include building inspection.
Public County Libraries
The boards of supervisors establish and maintain free public libraries and appoint county librarians. Depending on the county, the county library may be administered as a special district or as a general fund department of county government. Funding for library operation comes from a combination of local property taxes and allocations from the state budget's public library fund. Although city libraries may exist as separate and independent local entities with their own administrations and budgets, in some counties the city and county libraries function as a consolidated system. Most public libraries belong to a statewide cooperative system.
Other County Officials
Other county offices mandated for general law counties and common for charter counties include a fire marshal, a livestock inspector and a sealer of weights and measures. Among other officers the board of supervisors may appoint are an agricultural commissioner, a health officer, a public guardian and a public information officer.