A municipal charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It is comparable to the Constitution of the United States or a state’s constitution. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city. Charters are granted either directly by a state legislature by way of local legislation, or indirectly under a general municipal corporation law following a referendum vote of the proposal by the affected population. The municipal leagues in the several states can provide information about the form of charter provided in each of the state constitutions.
Occasionally, a city will seek to revise its charter. There are several reasons to do so, since the charter affects everything the city government does. It provides the basis for most municipal regulatory functions and for the delivery of municipal services. The process varies, but in New York State, for example, there are three ways to revise a municipal charter:
A) Charter Commission. A charter commission must be established, and may be done by any of the following three procedures:
- The city’s legislative body may establish a charter commission, or it may submit to the city voters the question of whether or not there shall be a charter commission. The council must indicate the number of members on the commission and whether the members shall be elected or appointed.
- The mayor of a city may create a charter commission by appointing no fewer than nine members. The commission is established upon filing the mayor’s certificate of appointment with the city clerk, which must also name the chairman, vice chairman, and secretary.
- The establishment of a commission by voter initiative requires either 45,000 signatures or the number of signatures equal to 15 percent of the votes cast within the city for the state’s governor in the last gubernatorial election, whichever is less. The legislative body is then required to submit the matter to a referendum.
After a charter commission has been created, it must review the entire charter and prepare a draft of proposed revisions. The proposed amendments are to be completed and filed with the city clerk in time for submission to the voters at the next general or a special election.
B) Initiative and Referendum. The city’s voters must sign a petition for a new charter or charter amendments. The number of signatures required on the petition must equal 30,000 or at least 10 percent of the votes cast for the state’s governor in the last gubernatorial election, whichever is less. The petition is then filed with the city clerk and submitted for judicial review. If the proposed changes require a referendum, the legislative body may submit the proposal to the voters at the next general election.
C) Direct Legislative Action. A city charter can be revised by direct action of the legislative body under its local law power.
Coon, James A., “Revising City Charters in New York State, Local Government Technical Series.” Albany, NY: New York State Department of State, Division of Local Government Services, June 1998.