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What is the Charter?

Not every city or county has a charter but, for those that do, it acts like a local version of the U.S. Constitution. 

It’s the document that provides the local government with its authority and describes the powers held by that government. 

WHY IS A CHARTER IMPORTANT?

The charter is where you can find out a lot about your city or county. It tells you about the form of government, who is in charge of what, and what requirements someone might have to meet to get elected. 

For example, a charter can tell you what powers the city council has and whether or not your mayor gets a vote on local legislation. Can the council members set their own salaries or sell public lands without getting residents’ input?

Like the U.S. Constitution, a charter will describe:

  • Various offices like the mayor, city attorney, clerk, or even auditor general

  • Legislative bodies like boards of commissioners or town councils

  • Oversight agencies like commissions on ethics or investigative panels

Also like the U.S. Constitution, a charter may include a citizens’ bill of rights. These bills might protect everything from rights of free speech on through rights to things like public records, the right to be heard, or the right to clean water. Some charters even allow residents to sue their local government in court if those rights are not being protected. 

Charters often have three other important features: (1) they describe the process for amending the charter, (2) they may include a referendum process, and (3) they may include an initiative petition process. 

AMENDING THE CHARTER

Amending the charter is very important because it sets up the rules by which a local government is held accountable and may exercise its authority. Often, amending a charter requires that the public vote in a referendum and this process may be regulated by state law. In Florida, charter amendments always require a referendum and are governed by section 166.031 of Florida’s statutes. Other states allow municipalities to amend their charters in a variety of ways.

REFERENDUM

The sections of a charter that deal with a referendum will typically describe the procedures necessary to carry one out. But they may also describe which government actions, in addition to a charter amendment, will require approval by the voters in a referendum. For instance, if the City of Miami wishes to sell waterfront property, the city’s commissioners must first get residents to vote in favor of that sale. Other cities may require that even fairly technical details (like certain “upzoning” decisions) be placed on a ballot for a referendum. 

INITIATIVE

Finally, the initiative petition is the opposite of the referendum. In a referendum, the government asks the public to approve some government action. With an initiative, residents are legislating directly and telling their local government what policy will be adopted. The charter will set out the procedure for this form of direct democracy, defining how many signatures must be collected on a petition, which issues may be legislated on this way, whether city council approval or a referendum is required, etc. However, at the end of a successful initiative, residents will have directly adopted an ordinance of their own choosing. 

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