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Why Are There so Many Types of Cities and Counties? A Guide to Municipal Classifications and Forms of Government


September 6, 2022  by  Oskar Rey
Category:  Classification Forms of Government-City Forms of Government-County

Why Are There so Many Types of Cities and Counties? A Guide to Municipal Classifications and Forms of Government

I had practiced municipal law for over 20 years when I joined MRSC, so I thought I was knowledgeable on the topic! I learned that, based on my work experience, I was somewhat knowledgeable about council-manager code cities, but that I also knew little about other types of cities, and even less about counties!

It’s helpful to have a working knowledge of the different forms and classifications of municipal governments, and to get a sense of why Washington State has such a broad array of local governments, we have to start with Article 11 of the Washington Constitution.

Washington Constitution — Counties and Cities

At statehood in 1889, there were 34 counties in Washington, and by 1911, the current configuration of Washington’s 39 counties was in place with the creation of Pend Oreille County. But county boundaries were anything but static from the establishment of Washington as a territory in 1853 to 1911, as shown on this interactive map on the history and facts of Washington counties.

Unchanging county boundaries are not a given under the Washington Constitution. Article 11, Section 3 provides for the creation of new counties and adjustment of boundaries between existing counties, but the legislature has never adopted enabling legislation to implement that part of the constitution. In addition, each of the 39 county boundaries are legally described in chapter 36.04 RCW, so it would seem that any change to a county boundary requires a legislative act.

The Washington Constitution provides for three types of counties:

  1. “home rule” charter county (Art. 11, Sec. 4);
  2. noncharter commission county government (Art. 11, Sec. 5); and
  3. combined city-counties (Art. 11, Sec. 16). Don’t worry if you have not heard about combined city-counties since there aren’t any in Washington at this time.

Cities and towns are quite different. There were 29 cities and towns at statehood; now there are 281 — you can see profiles of each Washington city and town and county on the MRSC website. Even today, geographically, the majority of Washington is comprised of unincorporated county areas.

Article 11, Section 10 of the Washington Constitution provides that the legislature may adopt general laws governing the formation and classification of cities. Cities with a population of 10,000 or more may adopt a charter and become charter cities (In 1964, Section 10 was amended to reduce the population requirement down from 20,000 but the legislature did not amend the relevant statute, RCW 35.01.010, to that effect until 1994).

City and County Classifications

A city or county “classification” refers to the type of entity it is.

For existing counties, there are two classifications: noncharter and charter. There are seven counties that have successfully adopted charters in accordance with Article 11, Section 4, of the Washington Constitution: Clallam, Clark, King, Pierce, San Juan, Snohomish, and Whatcom. The remaining 32 counties are noncharter counties with a commission form of government pursuant to Article 11, Section 5.

For cities, it is slightly more complicated. Shortly after statehood, the legislature created four city classifications: first-class (charter) cities, second-class cities, third-class cities (which have since been eliminated by the legislature), and fourth-class municipalities, which are now referred to as towns. These classifications were based solely on population — at the time, a city could only be a first-class charter city if it had a population of 20,000 or more. First-class cities enjoyed much broader powers than the other classification of cities and towns.

In 1967, the state legislature created a new classification — the code city — through adoption of the “Optional Municipal Code,” which is set forth in Title 35A RCW. The basic objective of the legislation was to increase the ability of cities to cope with complex urban problems by providing broad statutory home rule authority in matters of local concern to all municipalities, regardless of population. Under their home rule authority, code cities may take any action on matters of local concern so long as that action is neither prohibited by the state constitution nor in conflict with the state general law.

In contrast, cities and counties that do not have home rule authority only have those powers expressly enumerated by statute and those which are necessarily implied from the powers expressly granted. The effect of the Optional Municipal Code was to make broad home rule powers available to cities that could not meet the population requirements applicable to first-class cities. MRSC’s Code City Handbook has more information on the adoption of the Optional Municipal Code (see pages 3-9).

Code city is now the most numerous classification. Currently, there are:

  • 10 first-class charter cities (Aberdeen, Bellingham, Bremerton, Everett, Richland, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, and Yakima);
  • 5 second-class cities (Davenport, Palouse, Ritzville, Tekoa and Wapato);
  • 69 towns;
  • 197 code cities; and
  • 1 unclassified city (Waitsburg, which operates under its territorial charter).

City and County Forms of Government

So, the classification of a city or county establishes the breadth of their powers. The form of the government establishes the nature of the legislative body and executive that leads the city or county.

If a city or county has a charter, its form of government will generally be spelled out in the charter. For everyone else, the form is provided for in the Washington Constitution or in the statutes. We know that the 10 first-class cities have charters, seven counties have chosen to adopt charters, and Waitsburg has a territorial charter. Is there anyone else?

Yes! Code cities also have the option of adopting charters, but to date, Kelso is the only code city to have done so.

There are two forms of government in use by cities at present: The mayor-council form, in which an elected mayor serves as the chief executive and administrative officer of the city, and the council-manager form, in which the council hires and oversees an appointed city manager who, in turn, oversees and supervises the administrative affairs of the city. Under both forms of government, the council serves as a legislative body with executive authority vested in either the mayor or city manager. MRSC’s City and Town Forms of Government webpage has an overview of both forms.

The 32 noncharter counties operate under the commission form of government and have a three-member board of county commissioners who carry out both legislative and executive functions (Spokane County will have a five-member board starting in 2023 based on population requirements in state law). In addition, noncharter counties elect several other county positions including the county clerk, treasurer, assessor, auditor, and prosecutor. MRSC’s County Commissioner webpage provides an overview of a commissioner’s dual legislative/executive role.

Six of seven charter counties provide in their charters for a council that carries out legislative and budgetary functions. King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Whatcom provide for a county executive elected by the voters. Clark and San Juan provide for an administrator or manager appointed by the county council to carry out executive functions. The Clallam County Charter provides for a commission that, like noncharter counties, carries out both legislative and executive functions. However, the Clallam County Charter also calls for an appointed county administrator to manage the day-to-day affairs of the county. For more on charter counties, see MRSC’s County Commissioner Guide (pages 8-9).

Changing Forms of Government

The ability to change forms of government varies by classification. For a noncharter county, there is only one way to change classification — adopt a charter.

For cities and counties with charters, changing the form of government will generally require a charter amendment, which will typically include (among other things) a popular vote.

For non-charter code cities, the process is set forth in chapter 35A.06 RCW. It can be initiated by council resolution or through submittal of a petition signed by voters. The MRSC website has examples of resolutions changing form of government, more information on the process, and a list of the cities that have changed their form of government since 1970.

Conclusion

City or county classifications and forms of government have a profound impact on how a city or county transacts business and conducts its affairs. Questions about classifications and forms of government may not come up for us on a day-to-day basis, but a solid grasp of these concepts provides a foundation for our understanding of the parameters under which cities and counties operate.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works. Oskar is a life-long resident of Washington and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1992.

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