Self Government Is An American Tradition

When I attended a recent meeting of interested citizens near Half Moon Bay I was impressed by three things:

1.  The heart felt concern they have for the future of the coastside of San Mateo County.
2.  The fact there was a cross-section of people representing more than 10 separate and identifiable communities.
3.  The level of knowledge they had regarding local government issues.

The purpose of the meeting, at which I had been invited to speak, was to review governmental options for this area of San Mateo County.  Incorporating a city is not like annexing land to obtain services for a proposed development.  Matters of government organization reflect the choices communities make regarding the distinct governmental structure desired to carry out civic affairs.


Laws in California are designed to ensure that cities are incorporated only if they are financially feasible and do not adversely affect the finances of the county government. The Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, is the agency that regulates local government boundaries.  It can approve the incorporation of a new city – and allow the matter to go to a vote – only if it finds the new city is financially feasible and there are no adverse, unmitigated fiscal affects on other agencies as a result.   Only then are the voters in the proposed city allowed to decide whether to create a new local government for themselves.


When a community incorporates in California, it does not stop being part of the County.  If the coastal area becomes a new city it will remain a part of San Mateo County, as are the 21 existing cities in the County.


However, responsibility for certain types of services would transfer from a board of supervisors that is elected by all the voters in the County to a locally elected city council, the type of local self-representation that is a hallmark of a democratic society. 


City obligations in California include local law enforcement, maintenance of public streets and thoroughfares and decisions regarding land use plans, zoning and building regulation.  Cities are bound by existing State laws including regulations in the California Coastal Zone.


It is not by accident that State laws require the first action of any new city council to be to adopt all county zoning ordinances and regulations.  Any subsequent change in these rules requires public hearings, compliance with environmental rules and conformity with State planning procedures.


Once a city is created those decisions are made by individuals who are elected by and accountable to those within the city boundaries.


The preponderance of San Mateo County voters live on the Bay side of the ridge and most of those within existing cities.  As a result decisions regarding local land use and public services for much of the coastal area are made by County officials who do not live in the area and are elected by voters who live elsewhere. 


It challenges our sense of democratic institutions when so many decisions about local community issues are made by outsiders who are not directly accountable to those whose lives and property are most affected by the decisions.


Time will tell whether residents of the coastal side of the County have sufficient interest and drive to incorporate a new city that encompasses their lands and varied interests.  Should that process proceed and the facts reveal a new city is financially feasible and would not adversely affect the County’s finances, local self-determination is the courses that will clearly recommend itself.


Bob Braitman
Braitman & Associates


Editor’s note:  Braitman & Associates is a consulting firm providing fiscal analysis and jurisdictional relation services in communities throughout California. Mr. Braitman is the LAFCO Executive Officer for Contra Costa and Santa Barbara Counties with thirty years of experience and over 1200 boundary reorganizations .



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