A Citizen's Guide to Special Districts in California
Kimia Mizany & April Manatt
Most Californians don't understand special districts. Most of us don't know:
- How many exist (about 3,400).
- What they do (services from A to Z: airports to zoos).
- Who runs them (it could be your next-door neighbor).
- Or even what they cost (about $26 billion a year).
Celebrated as the best example of democracy, cursed as the worst form of fragmented
government, and generally misunderstood even by the experts, special districts are California's
unique contribution to local government. But what is so special about special districts anyway?
The answer: focused service.
Focused because special districts only serve in specifically defined areas, unlike counties and
cities that provide services throughout their boundaries. Special districts are also focused
because most of them provide only a single service, allowing them to concentrate on one
activity. Service because special districts deliver public programs and public facilities that their
constituents want. Cities and counties must provide a wide variety of services, some of them
mandated by the federal and state governments. Special districts provide the public services that
the public wants.
This third edition of this citizen's guide to special districts answers many of your questions
about California's most abundant form of local government. In plain language, this guide
explains what special districts are, where districts came from, their legal powers, and different
ways to understand them. This guide also tells you where to get more information about the
special districts that serve you --- and how to form new districts in your community.
The Senate Local Government Committee first published What's So Special About Special
Districts? in June 1991, the result of a research project by Senate Fellow April Manatt. In 1993,
working as a Committee Consultant, Manatt produced a Second Edition. The publication has
been the most popular of the Committee’s citizens guides, selling hundreds of copies. Frequently
cited by other authors, this report has become a standard introduction to special district
But much has changed since 1993. The Legislature shifted billions of dollars of property tax
revenues away from local agencies, including the districts. The voters passed more initiatives,
including Proposition 218 (1996). And the California economy went through a major recession
and an expansion. This Third Edition documents special districts' current financial status, revisits
what is and what is not a special district, explains how many services districts provide, and
describes how citizens can effect changes in the districts which serve them. Revised by Senate
Fellow Kimia Mizany, the Third Edition builds on the earlier explanations.
Democracy works best when people are informed about the governments that are created to serve
them. This guide will make you smarter about the special districts that serve you.