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City and Town Classification

This page provides an overview of first class, second class, and code cities and towns in Washington State, as well as a comparison of powers between the different classes.

Overview

City and town governments in Washington are classified according to their population at the time of organization (usually incorporation) or reorganization. There are four classification types: first class, second class, and code cities, and towns, all of which have different powers under state law. One city in Washington (Waitsburg) remains unclassified.

In addition, each city has a form of government that determines its governance structure: mayor-council, council-manager, or commission.

To see the classification and form of government of any city or town, use MRSC’s Washington City and Town Profiles.

First Class Cities

A first class city is a city with a population of 10,000 or more at the time of organization or reorganization that has adopted a charter (RCW 35.01.010). There are 10 first class cities in Washington, with four operating under council-manager and six under mayor-council.

Second Class Cities

A second class city is a city with a population over 1,500 at the time of organization or reorganization that does not have a charter and does not operate as a code city under the Optional Municipal Code (RCW 35.01.020). There are eight second class cities in Washington, all operating under the mayor-council form.

Towns

A town has a population of less than 1,500 at the time of its organization and does not operate under the Optional Municipal Code (RCW 35.01.040). There are 69 towns in Washington, all operating under the mayor-council form.

No new towns may be formed. In 1994, the state legislature increased the population threshold required for incorporation from 300 to 1,500 (RCW 35.02.010). Since an area cannot incorporate unless it has 1,500 inhabitants, and since a town by definition must organize with less than 1,500 inhabitants, it is no longer possible to incorporate as a town.

Code Cities

Most Washington cities are classified as code cities under the Optional Municipal Code (Title 35A RCW). Created in 1967, the Optional Municipal Code provides an alternative to the basic statutory classification system of municipal government. It was designed to provide broad statutory home rule authority in matters of local concern.

Any unincorporated area having a population of at least 1,500 may incorporate as a code city, and any city or town may reorganize as a code city. Code cities with populations over 10,000 may also adopt a charter, but only one city (Kelso) has done so.

There are 193 code cities in Washington, with 144 operating under mayor-council and 48 under council-manager. One code city (Shelton) operates under the commission form.

Comparison of Powers

The below table summarizes some of the key differences between second class cities, code cities, and towns. First class cities are not listed as their powers and structures are derived from their charters, which vary depending on the city.

Powers Code City Second Class City Town
Home Rule Authority Broad authority in all matters of local concern. Only those powers expressly or implicitly granted by legislature. Only those powers expressly or implicitly granted by legislature.
Construction of powers Requires liberal construction of powers granted to it. Governed by rule of strict construction of powers granted to it. Governed by rule of strict construction of powers granted to it.
Limits of Power All powers granted to any class of city and any not specifically denied. Only powers granted specifically to this class or all classes. Only powers granted specifically to this class or all classes.
Actions at Special Meetings Any if proper notification given. No action for the payment of money allowed. No action for the payment of money allowed.
Emergency Clauses Authority to include in most types of ordinances for protection of public health, safety, property, or peace. Specific authority only for emergency expenditures in specified situations. Specific authority only for emergency expenditures in specified situations.
Appointment of Councilmember Pro Tem Authority in the event of an extended excused absence or disability of a councilmember. No specific authority. No specific authority.
Mayor Pro Tem Term Limit 2 years. 2 years. 6 months.
Mayoral Veto Power Over Ordinances* Yes. Yes. No.
Mayor Has Tie-breaking Vote* Yes, except on issues of payment of money or franchises. No. Yes, except on issues of payment of money or franchises.
Council Confirmation of Mayoral Appointments* May require if no qualifications for office established. May require for appointment of clerk, treasurer, or attorney. Not allowed for any appointive officers.
Planning Governance May adopt a planning commission or a planning department, person, staff, or body, and may provide for an alternative in event of a conflict. Must adopt a planning commission of 3-12 members. Must adopt a planning commission of 3-12 members.
Initiative and Referendum May adopt May not adopt. May not adopt.
Annexation Petition Signature Requirement Qualified electors equal to 10% of votes cast at last state general election. Qualified electors equal to 20% of votes cast at last state general election. Qualified electors equal to 20% of votes cast at last state general election.
Allowance of Wards Yes with no restrictions. Yes with a maximum number of wards permitted. Cannot have wards.
Ordinance Effective Date Five days after publication. Five days after publication. Immediately upon publication.

* Only applies in mayor-council form of government.


Last Modified: May 09, 2016