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Taking the Long View

League members gather in Santa  Barbara in 1911.

League members gather in Santa Barbara in 1911.

There’s no question that the past couple of years have been fraught with challenges for the cities of California. Most cities are grappling with the serious financial fallout from the governor’s and Legislature’s short-sighted elimination of redevelopment agencies and their diversion of vehicle license fee revenues that has deprived cities, especially our newest ones, of important general revenue. California’s fiscal woes and inability to balance its budget are profoundly impacting cities, as essential public services (for example, higher education, criminal justice, health care and more) are cut to the bone and the state shifts much of the burden associated with providing these services onto the backs of cities and counties. The dismal economy hampers local government’s efforts to rebound from the recession, and the cost of what seemed like reasonable commitments years ago to improve employee pensions are proving unmanageable. In light of these challenges, it is natural to question whether relations with the state government have ever been this stressed.

One way to answer that question is by taking a step back from the immediacy of the problems confronting us and examining how we arrived at this point and how today’s problems compare with those facing California’s cities in the past. The League’s role in advocating for cities and local control has a rich history. Understanding this history provides a valuable perspective on the issues facing us today.

California Cities’ Origins

California became a state in 1850. The Gold Rush drove a population explosion; the state grew from roughly 10,000 people in 1846 to 92,500 in 1850. When California joined the Union, it had to create a regular system of local government from the existing patchwork of miners’ camps and the remnants of Mexican rule. “In brief, the mining camp was a little republic,” wrote Harvard philosopher and Grass Valley-born Josiah Royce in 1886, “practically independent for a time of the regular state officials.”

Californians, increasingly dissatisfied with the inability of a series of military governors to create a system of civilian government, essentially ignored them and established their own local institutions. Los Angeles residents claimed that their city had a charter conferred by Mexican law. Sacramento was the first city in the state to formally adopt a charter on Oct. 13, 1849.

When the California Legislature met for the first time in December 1849, Assembly Member P.B. Cornwall introduced a bill to incorporate Sacramento. The next day, Governor Peter H. Burnett’s State of the State address included the need to adopt a “comprehensive system” for providing city government. He charged the Legislature with resolving this and other pressing issues.

The Assembly Committee on Corporations responded by recommending two bills. The first would be a specific incorporation for Sacramento, and the second would create a uniform procedure for incorporating cities and villages. The committee reasoned that in Sacramento’s case, the procedure for incorporating a “small inland village” did not fit the needs of a “large commercial seaport town.” About a week later, a special incorporation bill for Los Angeles’ incorporation was introduced by Senator Alexander Hope.

The Los Angeles bill was the first to reach Gov. Burnett’s desk, and he vetoed it, noting two principal objections: constitutionality and expediency. His veto message cited other states’ experience where special acts had produced “great and serious evils.” He said that special incorporation acts were essentially “the same in substance” and that this redundancy would increase costs and “permit abuses to creep in.” Burnett then offered his own ideas of what a uniform procedure should comprise. He wanted to distinguish between villages and cities by size. He also argued that inland and coastal cities needed different powers; giving all cities the same powers was unnecessary because some of those powers “would simply remain dormant.”

The governor’s other major objection related to the limited power to tax that the bill conferred on city officials. He believed that only the Legislature had the power to tax, based on the 1849 state Constitution. Shortly thereafter, he also vetoed the Sacramento incorporation bill, citing both similar and additional concerns. Nevertheless, both the Senate and Assembly overrode the veto, and Sacramento became the state’s first incorporated city.

The Legislature followed up by passing two uniform laws: one for cities and one for towns. The Cities Act required a city to have at least 2,000 residents and a maximum area of four square miles. It also included two procedures for incorporation. Either the Legislature could create new cities or residents could petition the county court. Cities’ property taxes were restricted to 2 percent of the assessed value. The Towns Act was similar, requiring 200 residents and a maximum area of three square miles, but with lower limits on the town’s taxing authority.

In 1856 the Towns Act was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court, which held that the power to incorporate towns was improperly delegated to the county courts because they are not part of the legislative branch of government. Instead the court suggested that this power should rest with the county board of supervisors or a similar body. The Legislature repealed the law and replaced it with a new Towns Act that delegated responsibility for incorporation to the county board of supervisors, an arrangement that is still in place today.

Legislature Meddles Egregiously in Local Affairs

But once the issues related to incorporation had been resolved, the Legislature bowed to pressure from the private sector and proceeded to meddle extensively in local affairs, passing egregious and abusive special legislation for cities. Four state Supreme Court cases of the time offer excellent examples of this meddling.

In Pattison v. Board of Supervisors of Yuba County, (1859), the court upheld a law requiring county supervisors to place a measure on the county ballot, which required the county to invest in a railroad. The court endorsed the concept that the Legislature could do whatever it wanted if not expressly forbidden by the state Constitution.

In People v. Burr, (1859), the court held that it was constitutional for the Legislature to authorize the payment of claims against San Francisco despite the fact that this essentially created a debt that exceeded the charter limits on such debt. Ironically those charter debt limits were previously established by the Legislature.

In Sinton v. Ashbury, (1871), the court upheld a statute whereby the Legislature directed the county judge to pay private citizens out of the city’s treasury for the cost of extending Montgomery Street. The court ruled that it was permissible for the Legislature to direct city funds for individuals’ gain.

In The Stockton and Visalia Railroad v. The Common Council of Stockton, (1871), the court ruled on the Legislature’s direction to Stockton to ask voters to “donate” $300,000 from the city’s treasury to the railroad to pay for building a rail line. Although four Supreme Court justices noted alleged corruption in the Legislature and raised issues of fairness in their opinions, the court cited prior case law and upheld the Legislature’s action. The railroad got the $300,000.

Constitutional Convention Offers Reforms

Cities had had enough. The 1879 Constitutional Convention offered a chance to rectify the situation, and convention delegates seized the opportunity. They looked to the Missouri Constitution and adopted its provisions for local control almost verbatim. The California Constitution of 1879 banned special act incorporations, forbade special legislation and gave communities with at least 100,000 people the power to frame freehold charters. The state Supreme Court review of this power noted that it was “manifestly the intention of the [new] Constitution to emancipate municipal government from the authority and control formerly exercised over them by the Legislature.”

City Officials Come Together

In December 1898, a small group of city officials gathered for the first meeting of the League of California Municipalities — known today as the League of California Cities (see “The League’s Inception” below). Their goals were to share information and experience, seek ways to better serve their residents, and advocate for cities at the state level.

The Same Issues Remain

The issues that drew California’s city officials together 114 years ago are still valid today. The governor and the Legislature have difficulty reaching compromises and agreeing on solutions. The key points that create friction between cities and the state are essentially the same now as in the second half of the 19th century: the protection of local revenues, the appropriate role of the state in relation to local government, and the need to protect local control over local matters. The Legislature’s propensity for special legislation that favors private interests has not abated.

However, the progress made by the League during the past 114 years is significant. We have achieved a number of successes in recent years: the passage of Proposition 1A in 2004 protecting the property tax and sales tax, the defeat of Prop. 90 in 2006, winning the No on 98/Yes on 99 campaign of 2008 and the passage of Prop. 22 in November 2010. Moreover, each year the League files 25 to 30 friend-of-the-court briefs that advance the cause of home rule and local control.

By using a three-pronged approach to defend local control — lobbying in the Legislature, engaging in the statewide initiative process and litigating in the courts — the League’s advocacy program has made strides on behalf of California’s cities.

Our members have helped meet the many challenges we’ve faced together by working on their personal time to gather signatures for ballot measures, raise funds and help spread the word about issues that affect our communities. Our regional public affairs managers work in tandem with local officials and our partners to build grassroots support for our efforts.

Fighting the Good Fight

In reflecting on the history and origins of California’s cities and the League, it’s clear that the battles over local control and local revenues have been part of the political landscape for cities since the Golden State joined the Union. While the world has changed a great deal since then, these issues have not.

Hard times require hard choices and courage. The challenges that face our cities and our state are tough, but they are not insurmountable. Our history suggests there is always going to be tension in the state-local relationship. The question for cities, however, is whether we can use the current stressful state of affairs to offer ideas for rebalancing the relationship to reflect the views and needs of the people of our state — the same Californians who time and time again have said they trust their community governments to meet their essential needs — perhaps now even more than their remote, at times dysfunctional state government.

The League has been bringing people together in search of new solutions and innovative approaches for more than a century. As we come together for our 2012 Annual Conference & Expo this month, let’s acknowledge the collaborative spirit at the heart of our work together. Thank your colleagues from throughout California for the good work they are doing every day on behalf of their cities. Let’s take this opportunity to renew our commitment to making California stronger and fighting to make grassroots democracy as responsive and independent of state interference as possible.


City officials meet in San Francisco in 1898 to form the League.

The League’s Inception

The League of California Cities was created in 1898 through the vision and determination of a few young men working in local government.

Ben Lamborn, city clerk of Alameda, wrote to city clerks at the more than 100 cities in the state. The Alameda City Council had asked him to inquire about other cities’ experiences with a new mechanical device, a road roller. Lamborn realized that the question left a great deal of blank space on the page, so he asked for additional information from each city, including population, date of incorporation, names of officials and more.

Lamborn’s letter reached Haven A. Mason, a community activist, newspaper publisher, practicing attorney and city clerk of Santa Clara. Mason had recently read about the National Municipal League, founded in 1894. Excited about the possibilities Lamborn’s effort suggested, Mason met with Lamborn to discuss an idea: Why not organize city officials and share experience and information not only about road rollers, but also on record-keeping, tax assessing, coping with the relatively new phenomenon of the electric light and raising money for new services? Mason sought a way to organize California cities and city officials to work together to deal with issues of a growing population and increased demands for service.

Lamborn and Mason spoke to Delos Druffel, the energetic young mayor of Santa Clara, who immediately liked the idea and sent a letter to all other mayors in the state asking if they would be interested in attending a meeting to discuss matters of mutual interest.

While awaiting responses, the fires of activism were tempered by practical realities. Where would they find funds for such an organization? Mason and Lamborn approached James D. Phelan, wealthy mayor of San Francisco, the largest city in the state. Phelan was not only interested in the idea, he was particularly helpful. He offered San Francisco as a meeting place and advanced $3,000 out of his own pocket to pay for expenses. To supplement the advance, Lamborn wrangled a 3,000-mile pass from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which the railroad viewed as an investment in the prospect of collecting cash fares from convention-bound municipal officials once a year.

Mayor Druffel received enthusiastic replies to his letter from nearly half of the cities in California. With financing secured, and legal and practical advice provided by C.H. Kirkbride, city attorney of San Mateo, the meeting was becoming reality.

Several mayors expressed concerns about legislation needed to benefit cities. Consequently the meeting date was set before January 1899, “so that the proposed association could be formed in time to consider such matters of legislation as might be deemed expedient to submit to the Legislature then to assemble.”

Thirty cities answered the invitation, and 13 cities sent delegates to the first meeting in San Francisco, on Dec. 14, 1898. Mayor Phelan was elected president, Mason was named secretary and Lamborn was made a member of the executive committee, along with Mayor Joseph Hutchinson of Palo Alto.

Mayor Phelan gave the inaugural address:

“There is much work that can be done by this League. Many problems of city management remain to be solved. … How shall we best light our cities, purchase our supplies, provide proper sanitation and minister to the general well-being of our citizens? Water works and lighting plants require knowledge. And yet we are all experimenting with these various matters, seeking solutions to the problems confronting us, without system and without direction.

“We should come together at least once each year to formulate our needs and relate our experiences for the benefit of all. It may be necessary for the Legislature or charter makers to frame a new street improvement act. Who shall frame it — the street contractors or the cities? The latter most assuredly; and what better agency could have charge of such work than the League of California Municipalities.”

Adapted from a history of the League written in 1975 by Winston Updegraff, former editor of Western City.


More Resources Online

In writing this column I drew extensively from an article written by Peter Detwiller, “Home Rule: An Historical Perspective,” that appears in the January 1997 issue of Western City.  His article and two others that appeared in the same issue, “There’s No Place Like Home: The Case for Home Rule” by Michael Jenkis and “The Home-Rule Debate: Why Cities?” by John J. Kirlin, Ph.D., offer further insights into the ongoing issues of local control.