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Feb 11

Modesto Civics 101: The Charter Overview

Posted on February 11, 2021 at 2:38 PM by Alyssa Adams

For many of us, the last time we took a civics course was in the 1900’s, and much of that course probably focused on the three branches of the federal government—not the checks and balances within local city government. This four-part series focuses on how Modesto’s government is organized. Part one is a brief explanation of the City Charter.

In California, there are two types of cities: those under general law and those under charters. General law cities are bound by State legislature on all matters, including over the form of their government and elections—even over municipal affairs. Charter cities, however, are governed by a resident-written charter that supersedes State legislature. It allows each city to choose its own form of government and decide its own election procedures, among many other advantages.

City charters allow each city to govern itself in a way that is most beneficial for its constituents. Each city’s charter is the organizational framework of the city’s government powers and functions.

Since 1951, Modesto has been a charter city. Because local representatives know the nuances of their community best, the City can better govern its residents based on their direct needs.

As an example, California law establishes that each city has four council members and one mayor, totaling a five-person council. Because of Modesto’s large population and square mileage, the Charter was updated to require six Council Members and one Mayor, increasing representation across the City districts on the Council.

To ensure its continued relevance, a committee of residents reviews the Charter about once every decade. This committee proposes changes to improve City governance. A committee is currently in the process of reviewing the Charter. The committee will make recommendations to the City Council, and the changes will be approved by constituents at the next available election.

Only about one-fourth of California cities are governed by their own charters. This unique legal setting gives Modesto the opportunity to maximize local control, rather than State control. 

Since the Charter allows for greater flexibility in handling municipal affairs, it is important that the City Council and Mayor uphold the Charter in their duties as they govern Modesto and its residents. The roles of these elected officials will be described in greater detail in the next post in this series.