Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, U.S.A.
This entry reviews the history and study of municipal charters in the United States. It covers the origins of city
charters, their constitutional and operational characteristics, and future directions of public administration
research. Charters have been viewed through the new institutional analytic framework, which treats charters
as constitution-level contractual agreements between citizens and government designed to minimize uncer-
tainty about the future distribution of costs and beneﬁts of public goods. Charters have also been the subject of
political conﬂict as historically disenfranchised groups opposed charter reforms they argued would margin-
alize their voice in governmental decisions. It brieﬂy details the methods of “direct democracy”commonly
included in charters as a response to corruption and inefﬁciencies.
Municipal charters are documents containing the organiz-
ing principals, enumerated powers, privileges, and essen-
tial procedures of city governance. Municipal charters
function like a constitution for local governments, usually
specifying the structure of the government, its budgeting
processes and operations, ﬁscal controls, types of public
ofﬁces, avenues for public participation and information
release, electoral rules, and taxation powers. Charters are
generally more difﬁcult to amend than general ordinances
because they may require popular votes of the city’s elec-
torate, while ordinances may be adopted, amended, or
repealed by votes of the city legislative body. As such,
charters are studied in public administration and other
ﬁelds as avenues for the creation of durable power-sharing
and resource distribution arrangements among elected
ofﬁceholders, appointed ofﬁcials, and citizens in the face
of scarcity and uncertainty.
The history of municipal charters can be traced to Roman
times, when the concept of the municipality imposing
variation in the rule of law within city borders was utilized
by the Roman Empire to govern its diverse territories.
During the middle ages of Europe, royal charters were
means of distinguishing settlements that fell under the
protection of a monarch from villages where subjects
fell under feudal rule. Residents ﬂeeing the obligations
of serfdom could ﬁnd greater rights in growing cities. In
the era of Enlightenment, commercial charters limiting lia-
bility for economic activities would give rise to modern
corporations, and municipal charters gave cities vast
power over public life.
In Colonial America, charters
bestowing municipal corporation were granted by the
monarch, allowing monopoly power and property rights
in exchange for high fees. Cities in the United States
today remain constituted as corporations, distinct from
higher levels of governance. The U.S. Constitution recog-
nizes only the national and state governments. States
decide individually whether to delegate the ability to write
a charter to local governments. The ﬁrst State Constitution
adopted in 1777 by New York recognized colonial char-
ters of two cities, New York and Albany, but directed
the legislature to limit cities’ability to tax, assess, or incur
Municipal charters are often described as con-
stitutional documents steering questions of authority and
governance within municipalities, but there are important
distinctions. State constitutions are limitations on the
authority of state legislatures to exercise the otherwise
unfettered powers granted to states. The federal Constitu-
tion is an explicit statement of enumerated powers, and
municipal charters are more similar to the latter.
will typically allow exercises of authority for constitu-
tional entities such as the federal or state government
unless such authority is expressly forbidden, but they
will often deny such authority to nonconstitutional entities
unless it is expressly allowed.
Municipal charters are,
therefore, considered the most important framework of
laws within any city, and most cities have undergone sig-
niﬁcant charter reforms over the last 120 years in order
to resolve conﬂicts and explicitly delineate grants and
constraints on power and responsibility.
Charters also reﬂect differences among states in the
powers delegated to the local level, referred to as “home
rule.”In the United States, innovations in municipal char-
ters became commonplace as the country experienced dra-
matic population gains and urbanization from the 1880s to
1920s. During this era of industrialization, cities struggled
to deal with myriad of urban problems exposed as waves
of immigrant and rural, diverse groups moved to cities in
search of employment. Municipal reformers challenged
Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy, Third Edition DOI: 10.1081/E-EPAP3-120053329
Copyright © 2015 by Taylor & Francis. All rights reserved. 1
the patronage politics of city operations, dominated at the
time by political party “machine”bosses who exerci-
sed tremendous inﬂuence over city hiring and service deliv-
ery. But most states at the time prohibited cities from
exercising any powers not expressly deﬁned by the state
legislature through general incorporation laws, based on a
doctrine known as “Dillon’s Rule”named after a judge
who articulated it in 1871.
Cities in need of specialized
authority lobbied for state-level amendments granting
them additional concessions. Reformers saw legislatures
catering to special interests by passing “hoodwink”amend-
ments counter to the interests of cities. Partisan conﬂict
between state-level elected ofﬁcials and city leaders also
hastened calls for more local governance autonomy.
Thus, the push for home-rule amendments to state constitu-
tions was in full force by the end of the nineteenth century.
Missouri was the ﬁrst state to adopt home-rule provi-
sions for cities in 1875. Others would wait for decades.
New York, for instance, required state legislative action
to amend a municipal charter until the state Constitution
was amended in 1924 to grant power to cities to choose
their own form of government.
Chicago was only granted
special home-rule powers when Illinois voters adopted a
new Constitution in 1970.
Municipal charters in this
context represented an effort to professionalize governmen-
tal operations through selective hiring and civil service
standards, impose controls over public resources, and dele-
gate speciﬁc roles and duties between public ofﬁces such
as the mayor and city council members. Prescriptive recom-
mendations for “model charters”advocated by universities,
nonproﬁt foundations, and big-city leaders emphasized the
politically neutral beneﬁts of charter adoption by highlight-
ing “safe and sane”administrative procedures for ofﬁcers
and employees, appropriations, rules for the conduct of
business, public reporting, and management practices.
By the end of the twentieth century, 48 of 50 states had
adopted home rule.
Charters in the United States have typically been adapted
from model charter designs, modiﬁed by charter commis-
sions comprising local electors, and adopted by public ref-
erenda. As cities evolved into more sprawling urban regions
post-World War II, charter revisions became methods of
political control in response to rapidly stratifying enclaves
or racial, ethnic, and income groups and deteriorating ﬁscal
conditions of central cities. City charter revisions also
became the subject of some controversy during the Civil
Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as racial minori-
ties petitioned for equal representation and frequently
clashed with the largely white, male membership of charter
revision commissions. For example, the St. Louis branch of
the NAACP campaign against a proposed municipal charter
in 1956–1957 over concerns that it would exclude African-
American citizens from decision-making and lead to greater
racial stratiﬁcation within the city as “civic progress”and
urban redevelopment led to gentriﬁcation and income and
Municipal charters may steer virtually all major facets of
government administration, including powers, procedures,
and essential operations. They can also outline personnel
structure such as qualiﬁcations, compensation, and hiring
procedures. They may cover police power, ﬁre protection,
capital outlay, water supply, sewage treatment, the right
to buy or construct physical property and incur debts
through bonding. One way charters steer the operation of
governance is by specifying the form of municipal govern-
ment, which is historically categorized as council–manager,
mayor–council, commission, town meeting, and represen-
tative town meeting.
In California, where 121 of the
state’s 478 cities have adopted charters, those without are
organized by state law and governed by ﬁve-member city
Ostrom and other scholars conceptualize government
structure as hierarchies of rules nested within larger institu-
tions determining legitimate actions which may, must, and
must not be taken.
Charters are often viewed as constitu-
tional-level rules that deﬁne the bounds and direct the con-
tent of lower-level, operational rules, which detail the
substantive content of rules used to organize government
activities. Under a constitutional-rule framework, the char-
ters deﬁne positions, determine who is eligible to hold them,
grant the authority and responsibilities vested in positions,
and spell out the mechanisms by which public ofﬁcials
and the citizenry may engage in collective action.
operational rules are nested within charter institutional
arrangements and spell out the programmatic, technical,
and procedural functions of policy actions. While the oper-
ational rules may be revised by city commissions or coun-
cils without public votes, referenda may be required for
charter amendments or revisions.
CHARTERS AS RELATIONAL CONTRACTS
In public administration and other ﬁelds, city charters have
been analyzed through the lens of their transaction costs.
Municipal charters are arenas for distributional conﬂict
between disparate groups competing for beneﬁts. As such,
they must be more permanent than general law to reduce
uncertainty about future decisions and ensure delivery of
agreed-to beneﬁts, but malleable enough to change with
the times. Institutional change occurs as the durability of
the allocation of costs and beneﬁts enacted by previous
political regimes erodes,
or the stability of the social sys-
tem is punctuated.
Charters may be amended by revision
commissions appointed by mayor or city commissions,
through actions of the commission directly, or by popular
votes. Charters have often represented battlegrounds for
municipal reform movements such as the push to adopt
council–manager forms of government at the beginning of
the twentieth century. In this sense, they are constitutional
2 Municipal Charters
contracts between citizens and government, which help
resolve conﬂicts and determine the distribution of ﬁnite
resources among the citizenry, or who gets what, when,
They accomplish this by establishing
the parameters for future decision-making in future yet-
unrealized dilemmas. Like contracts, municipal charters
reduce uncertainty and allow for enforcement of terms of
the agreement between residents and government. They
deﬁne and set qualiﬁcations for citizenry, and ostensibly
relate the community characteristics and aggregate pre-
ferences of the public to varied conﬁgurations of insti-
tutional structures. They may inﬂuence the methods that
citizens use to sort themselves geographically,
form new governments designed to cater to homogeneous
The degree to which charters adequately
represent the preferences of citizens, therefore, may inﬂu-
ence many traditional areas of administrative concern,
such as responsiveness, equity in service delivery, and the
efﬁcient use of taxpayer resources. Maser
charters as “relational contracts,”which are adapted over
time as dispute resolution mechanisms between citizens
and their government. In the contractual sense, citizens
and government agree to terms of performance and the
distribution of costs and beneﬁts. In economics and poli-
tical science, the new institutional analysis has examined
how the structure of municipal charters adapts in response
to coordination, division, and defection problems. Coor-
dination problems may arise when popularly supported
policies are not adopted by local government ofﬁcials.
Division problems in local governance deal with allocations
of costs and beneﬁts. Defection occurs when local policy-
makers engage in opportunistic behavior through their
DIRECT DEMOCRACY PROVISIONS OF
Charters may represent a venue in which citizens respond
to those problems through the exercise of “direct democ-
racy”charter mechanisms when electors wield speciﬁc
policymaking powers. These methods of direct action by
citizens through charter provisions or amendments are often
instigated by the perception of legislative or executive
agency, inaction, or malfeasance and take the form of ini-
tiative petitions, referenda, and recall elections. They are
also more prevalent in larger cities with more diverse pop-
ulations. Washington State, for instance, has 281 incorpo-
rated cities yet fewer than 50 have adopted initiative
or referendum powers. Yet the state’s more populated
cities have done so.
Criticism of the direct democ-
racy provisions has focused on dilution of representative
democracy within the process, as well as the reduction
of often complicated policies into simple “Yes”or “No”
questions, and misleading campaigning sometimes sur-
Citizen-initiative petitions, sometimes called “direct legis-
lation,”are methods by which electors address inaction
by mayors and city councils, gathering the requisite number
of valid voter signatures to place proposed charter amend-
ments before the legislative body for action, or public votes.
When popularly supported policies are not adopted by
the city government, this presents a coordination problem,
which may be addressed via the initiative process whereby
the legislative and executive branches of the city may be
required to take up the matter. Many city charters have
also set additional requirements for the number of voter sig-
natures required to hold a referendum on the amendment
if the city government fails to act. Seattle, e.g., requires
citizens supporting an initiative to gather enough valid voter
signatures to equal at least 10% of the turnout in the last
Cities often have larger signature-
gathering requirements and longer time periods for collect-
ing signatures for charter amendment initiative petitions
than for ordinance initiative petitions.
Referendums are methods by which electors may reverse
or head off decisions of ofﬁceholders by requiring that
adopted or proposed laws be put to popular vote before their
effective date. Charters often indicate how long citizens
have to gather enough valid signatures to require a referen-
dum. The Los Angeles City Charter gives citizens attempt-
ing to force a referendum 30 days from its passage to submit
enough valid signatures to equal at least 10% of the votes
cast in a mayoral election.
Recall provisions are a mechanism of enforcement of
contractual obligations between citizens and elected ofﬁ-
cials that allow the removal of elected ofﬁceholders. A
recall provision is one method whereby citizens may
respond to perceived agency on the part of an elected ofﬁ-
cial for dissatisfaction in behavior or job performance.
Voters gather the necessary number of petition signatures
to require a vote on whether the ofﬁcial will ﬁnish their
term. Mayors and city council members may be recalled
for any reason, although failure to keep campaign pledges,
perceptions of incompetence, and misuse of public ofﬁce
for personal gain are often triggers for its use. In communi-
ties with more heterogeneous populations, ofﬁceholders
may have greater incentives to deliver selective beneﬁts
or cater to narrow bands of clientele in the community.
Therefore, cities with larger populations and more income
equality may be more likely to adopt recall provisions as
a method for enforcing equitable treatment of the citi-
The threat of losing ofﬁce may reduce the
Municipal Charters 3
tendency of elected ofﬁcers to defect from campaign
pledges or the performance of their duties.
Many of the mechanisms for constitutional choice present
in charters have been found to inﬂuence policy outcomes
and political behavior. Hansen
found evidence that citi-
zen-initiative provisions distinguished states that had
adopted tax and spending limitations from states that had
imposed no limits. Gerber
found that states with referen-
dum authority were more likely to adhere to the policy pref-
erences of median voters. Scholars have theorized that
direct democracy provisions may limit the willingness of
ofﬁcials to raise tax revenues. Park et al.
save for the presence of any direct democracy provisions
in charters, higher household income in a city leads to
higher local revenues. Initiative petitions may increase tax
revenue extraction as policymakers translate policy
demands into higher taxes. But the presence of referenda
and recall provisions in charters had a negative inﬂuence
on willingness of ofﬁcials to raises revenues.
Municipal charters are a means for professionalization of
standards and public administrative performance, diversiﬁ-
cation of rules to accommodate variation in community
characteristics, and adaption to changing environments
and sentiments. They are long-term contracts between the
governed and the governing within the city limits, which
allow for renegotiation under explicit circumstances. They
deﬁne the breadth and limits of power for ofﬁcial actors,
and provide mechanisms for their override or removal
when they are perceived to be acting counter to the public
good. Charters can also reﬂect attempts at political compro-
mise between social classes and strata. They are political
documents, intended to impose long-term governance
arrangements on dynamic social and geographic spaces.
Future public administration research will continue to
examine the underlying diversity of institutional statements
within city charters and how those conﬁgurations of rules
inﬂuence public service outcomes.
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4 Municipal Charters