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City and Town Classification

This page provides an overview of first class and second class cities, 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 city, second class city, code city, and towns, all of which have different powers under state law. One city in Washington (Waitsburg) remains unclassified.

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

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 five 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 68 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 197 code cities in Washington, with 148 operating under mayor-council and 49 under council-manager.


Unclassified Cities

Unclassified cities are holdovers from the pre-statehood era, when cities could adopt their own territorial charters. Waitsburg is the only unclassified city remaining. Legislation adopted in 2003 allows unclassified cities to adopt any of the powers of a code city by resolution (RCW 35.30.070).


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.
Limitations on Special Meetings No approval of an ordinance or resolution granting a franchise. No approval of: an ordinance or resolution granting a franchise; or an ordinance, contract, or bill for the payment of money. No approval of: an ordinance or resolution granting a franchise; or a resolution or order for the payment of money.
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.


Cities That Have Recently Changed Classification

Below is a list of cities that we are aware of that have changed classification in recent years. All of these changes involve second class cities or towns switching to code city status; no code city has ever reverted to another classification. (An initiative measure to revert Port Angeles from code city to second class was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2017.)

For a complete and current listing of all cities, including classification and form of government, see our Washington City and Town Profiles.

Second Class Cities Changing to Code Cities

  • Colfax (2017)
  • Port Orchard (2017)
  • Colville (2016)
  • Chewelah (2015)
  • Cle Elum (2010)
  • Normandy Park (2010)
  • Omak (2007)
  • Sedro-Woolley (2007)
  • Burlington (2006)

Towns Changing to Code Cities

  • Coulee Dam (2017)
  • Millwood (2008)
  • Electric City (2006)
  • Granger (2004)
  • Tieton (2004)

Last Modified: November 08, 2017