Updating the City Charter

Posted on February 27, 2020

Three-Ring Binders

Today’s Morning Buzz is about the city charter, a document that acts like the constitution of a city by establishing and outlining the city’s supreme authority over municipal affairs. A charter can only be adopted, amended, or repealed by a majority vote of a city’s voters.

Right Now with Daniel Soto (LinkedIn/Twitter)

What I’m Listening to – Bexar – Handmade (I think this is technically Country music, and I’m not sure how this song made it to my On Repeat playlist on Spotify. Anyway, it’s a super cheesy, feel-good love song that somehow got me hooked and apparently I’m in my feelings AF.)

What I’m Watching – Locke and Key (This past weekend I was challenged to find something to watch on Netflix—and this is what I found. It’s a 10-episode, somewhat also cheesy (there’s a recurring theme here) series about a family that moves into a haunted (?) house located in the fictional small coastal town of Matheson, Massachusetts. Magical keys are hidden throughout the house and when they’re found, they give the user special powers, such as the ability to become invisible, to transport from one place to another so long as the user has seen that place before, to get into one’s own (or anyone else’s) mind, among others. The show appears to dance around horror and fantasy—and it’s fun to watch. Locke and Key is based on a comic book series.)


In the United States, a charter city is a city whose governing system is defined by the city’s own charter document, as opposed to by a state’s general law. But what is a charter, exactly? The charter itself is a vital document that establishes a degree of autonomy to local governments and outlines certain authority and restrictions that a city has over its municipal affairs.

Ok, great… So what are municipal affairs? Although it isn’t clearly defined, the California Constitution provides four broad categories: (1) regulation of the “city police force”; (2) “subgovernment in all or part of a city”; (3) “conduct of city elections”; and (4) “the manner in which … municipal officers [are] elected.” To help explain that, here are some examples of what municipal affairs looks like:

  • Municipal election matters
  • Procedures for adopting ordinances
  • Compensation of city officers and employees
  • Processes associated with city contracts
  • Financing public improvements
  • Making charitable gifts of public funds for public purposes
  • Term limits for councilmembers
  • Land use and zoning decisions

By no means is this an exhaustive list.

So, why am I talking about city charters? Well, I was recently assigned the task of assisting City of Santa Ana staff with updating our charter (also, I should note that I recently rehired by City of Santa Ana, but we’ll talk about that later). Below I will share some background information about the City of Santa Ana’s charter, as well as a proposal, which was presented to the Santa Ana City Council this past January 2020, to move forward with preparing amendments to the charter to eventually take to the voters of Santa Ana at the discretion of the City Council.

Santa Ana Water Tower

About the City of Santa Ana’s Charter

The City of Santa Ana is governed through a charter which is authorized by the California Constitution. The Charter addresses important aspects of Santa Ana’s authority. The original charter was adopted by the voters on 1952. Modifications to the original document have been approved by the voters on several occasions, with the last major amendment occurring as part of the November 8, 2018 General Municipal Election. While most charter amendments were prepared and executed individually, the City has used an advisory committee to review the Charter only once.

On May 2, 2005, the City Council created an Ad Hoc Committee for the purpose of reviewing the City’s Charter. The Ad Hoc Committee reviewed the then-current City Charter and made several recommendations for changes to various sections in the Charter. On September 19, 2005, at the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee, the City Council created the Charter Amendment Citizens’ Task Force (“Task Force”), an advisory body, and directed members to review and comment on the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommended amendments. After a series of meetings, the Task Force made several suggestions related to the proposed changes and submitted the revised proposals to the Ad Hoc Committee for final consideration. The Ad Hoc Committee met on January 31, 2006 and approved proposed Charter amendments. Following this meeting, between April and June 2006, the City Council held four work study sessions at regularly scheduled City Council meetings to evaluate the proposed Charter amendments. The Ad Hoc Committee further recommended that the proposals be submitted to the voters at a special election to be consolidated with the General Municipal Election that was held on November 7, 2006. Five ballot measures were submitted to the voters:

  • Measure Z: Amendments to Charter Sections 400 (start date for term of office), 413 (ordinance introduction), and 1200 (calling of elections)
  • Measure AA: Amendments to Charter Sections 421 and 422 (contract provisions)
  • Measure BB: Amendments to Charter Section 401 (eight year eligibility waiting period for councilmembers)
  • Measure CC: Amendments to Charter Section 901 (board and commission appointment process)
  • Measure DD: Amendments to Charter Sections 901.1 (prohibition against serving as treasurer), 910 (Planning Commission responsibilities), 911 (prohibition against City employment for Personnel Board members), and 912 (jurisdiction of Personnel Board)

All five ballot measures received a majority vote, were accepted by the Secretary of State, and became effective.

Recently, members of the City Council have expressed a desire to create an advisory committee to perform a comprehensive review of the City Charter (“Charter Review Committee”).

Charter Review Committee Purpose

The purpose of a Charter Review Committee is to conduct an evaluation of a city’s charter, which includes preparing recommendations relating to amending the charter, and advising the City Council of their findings. As an advisory body, a Charter Review Committee would do the following:

  • Engage community members, City staff, and the City Council relating to research and analysis of current or proposed amendments to the City Charter
  • Help coordinate community members, staff, and City Council’s ideas with regard to potential Charter amendments
  • Formulate specific language for proposed Charter amendments in a form appropriate for placement on the ballot
  • Prepare and submit proposed ballot arguments in favor of or against proposed Charter amendments

Guidelines for Structuring a Charter Review Committee: A Proposal

The structure of a Charter Review Committee varies. For example, the City could structure a Charter Review Committee using the following criteria:

  • Establish a Charter Review Committee by adoption of a resolution to do so
  • Create a seven-person Charter Review Committee, composed of one resident from each ward, along with an at-large representative
    • Each member would be appointed by the City Council upon recommendation from each member of the City Council relating to the ward in which he or she represents
  • Identify eligibility criteria for Charter Review Committee members, which includes the following:
    • Be a Santa Ana resident
    • Demonstrate both interest and knowledge of local government administration and operations
    • Be able to commit to the necessary time required to conduct a Charter review
  • Designate City staff and/or third-party consultants who are subject matter experts to facilitate all aspects of the Charter Review Committee
  • Prepare a regular, recurring meeting schedule, along with a work plan to carefully articulate the Charter Review Committee’s purpose, goals, and timeline of activities
  • Develop a plan to engage the community from the beginning and openly share relevant data

January 21, 2020 City Council Meeting

On January 21, the City Council received an informational report that provided much of the information that is included in todays’ Morning Buzz. While some of the councilmembers were supportive of establishing a resident-led Charter Review Committee, the mayor ultimately motioned to establish an Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee instead—and three of our councilmembers enthusiastically agreed to serve on that Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee.

Next Steps

Updating any city charter takes a lot of work. Most of the text of these documents were written in the early 20th century using 19th (and 20th, I guess) century frameworks that do not support 21st century government. That being said, the City is taking a four-prong approach to updating its charter:

  1. Identify wish list items from each City department and evaluate them
  2. Identify wish list items from each councilmember and evaluate them
  3. Engage the community to ask them what their wish list items are, and evaluate them
  4. Review and evaluate recommendations made by the 2005 Task Force

Once these tasks have been done, staff will prepare recommendations for the Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee to consider. Once those recommendations have been reviewed by the Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee, they will be presented to the City Council in accordance with state law. And if the City Council decides to take these items to the voters, our residents will have a chance to consider each charter amendment at the general municipal election on November 3, 2020.

Voting Box

Do you have some tips to share with me about your experience with city charters? Let me know!

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