What is a municipal (city) charter?

The explanation in the next paragraph is from the Model Charter of the Georgia Municipal Association. It explains both city (municipal corporation) and municipal charter (or city charter) in Georgia. Municipal charters are governed by the laws of the state in which they are located, so they can be somewhat different from one state to another.  Basically, my interpretation is that a charter should specify the structure by which the other laws of the city are made – who makes the laws (usually at least a city council, often a mayor); how they are elected; what powers the city has (many of which are decided by the state); what the boundaries of the city are; and what the basic administrative structure,  financial machinery, and judicial structure are.  In general, what’s in a charter is meant to be quite long term, with things that might have to change with circumstances being ordinances.  There are gray areas, though.

“Municipal corporations are local governments which are governed by elected officials and which have the power of taxation and possess self-governing characteristics (5).  One distinguishing characteristic of this form of government, however, is that it is created by a charter enacted into law by the state legislature.  The charter establishes the political structure or framework of the municipal corporation, contains a number of detailed provisions granting general or specific powers, divides powers and duties, establishes specific prohibitions, and proclaimes general or specific guides to the proper conduct of local affairs.  Since it is a legal creature of the state, the municipal corporation’s nature and existence can be altered or terminated by the state. (6)”

Footnotes:
5 C. RHYNE, THE LAW OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS 2 (1980).
6 Porter v. City of Atlanta, 259 Ga. 526, 384 S.E.2d 631, cert. denied, 110 S.Ct. 1297
(1989); City of Mountain View v. Clayton County, 242 Ga. 163, 249 S.E.2d 541 (1978),
appeal denied, 440 U.S. 902 (1979); Pierce v. Powell, 188 Ga. 481, 4 S.E.2d 192
(1939).

Source: GMA Model Charter, 2007, http://www.gmanet.com/Assets/PDF/Publications/charter.pdf, accessed 9/7/2010, p. 7.