Georgia cities and towns are actually considered the same legal entity, going under the name of a “municipal corporation.” These municipal corporations are created by a charter through a legislative act of the Georgia General Assembly. The charter establishes the government structure of the city and defines boundaries, specific powers, functions, essential procedures, and legal control. While the city charter may grant a city the authority to impose, regulate, tax, or grant other powers, cities may need to adopt ordinances that outline additional powers in areas where the charter grants the city authority to do so.
Background on City Charters
The Georgia Home Rule Act of 1965 gives municipalities flexibility in governing many of their own affairs so that they don’t need to rely entirely on federal and state law. Some areas that municipalities can govern through Home Rule include:
- Public safety
- Garbage and solid waste services
- Public health facilities and services
- Public works
- Parks and recreation
Charters can be only changed through a:
- Local act. This is a law passed by the Georgia General Assembly that only affects one or more specific local governments. These local acts may affect the city’s composition, form of government, or procedures for electing its governing authority.
- “Home rule” charter amendment. Cities may amend their charters without need of the Georgia General Assembly as long as they don’t violate federal or state law. Specifically, state law does not allow for "home rule" charter amendments that affect the composition and form of the municipal governing authority, the procedure for election and appointment of elected officials, actions defining any criminal offense, and actions adopting a form of taxation beyond that authorized by state law, among other restrictions. Through amendments approved by the mayor and council, home rule allows cities to substantially self-govern. These kinds of ordinance changes require that the city adopt the ordinance at two regular consecutive meetings not less than seven days or more than 60 days apart. The law also requires that cities publish the ordinance for three weeks within a period of 60 days immediately before the ordinance’s final adoption. Charter amendments do not take effect until a copy of the amendment and an affidavit from the county’s legal organ attesting to the publication of the notice have been filed with the Georgia Secretary of State.
A charter creates one of three basic forms of government for a city, although many hybrids still exist. It is important to understand that many cities will not fit neatly into just one of these categories.
- Council-Manager. As one of the most common forms of local government, a council-manager governing body means the city hires a professional city manager to administer the daily affairs of the city with the oversight of the city council. Usually small in size, the councils hold responsibility for establishing governmental policy and for supervising the city manager.
- Weak Mayor-Council. A weak mayor-council governing body means the majority of executive powers, as well as legislative powers, are vested in the city council instead of a mayor.
- Strong Mayor-Council. This form of government provides for an elected mayor for a fixed term with appointive and removal powers over department heads, powers over financial affairs, and some control over the budget. The city council remains responsible for enacting municipal legislation (in the form of ordinances and resolutions) and policy, while the mayor retains administrative and operational responsibilities.
After establishing the political framework, the charter will then:
- Outline a number of detailed provisions granting general or specific powers
- Divide powers and duties
- Establish specific prohibitions
- Proclaim general or specific guides to the proper conduct of local affairs
For example, GMA’s sample charter includes the following common articles.
- Incorporation and Powers: Outlines the municipality’s name, boundaries, municipal powers, exercise of powers, and other provisions (such as ordinances).
- Government Structure: Outlines the political framework, the legislative governing body, and the governing body’s organization and procedures.
- Administrative Affairs: Outlines organizational and general provisions, administrative officers (including the city clerk), and personnel administration.
- Judicial Branch: Outlines the establishment of a municipal court.
- Elections and Removal: Outlines how elections and the removal of officers works.
- Finance: Outlines taxations and various fees, borrowing, accounting, budgeting, procurement, and property management.
- General Provisions: Outlines articles dealing with various items that do not fit appropriately in any other particular article of the charter such as bonds for officials, prior ordinances, and other charter language on general matters.
Why City Charters Matter to City Clerks
City charters often guide many of the city clerk’s duties and responsibilities. While this manual defines general rules, procedures, and best practices, your city charter (along with ordinances) outlines any specific actions you must follow. Make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with your city’s charter, not only for background but also to make sure you understand any specific guidelines that affect your work.
Specifically, city charters may outline duties and responsibilities related to:
- Regular and special meetings
- Meeting notices
- Public hearings
- Ordinances and resolutions
- Elections and referendums
More information about the three forms of government are included in GMA’s sample model municipal charter and the Handbook for Georgia Mayors and Councilmembers.
When questions arise, look to your city charter first when locating an answer. Review your city charter periodically and update it accordingly to reflect the current practices of the governing authority. GMA’s sample model municipal charter serves as an excellent resource for understanding the laws which govern municipalities.