By Dale Wilson
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This page provides an overview of first class, second class, and code cities and towns in Washington State, as well as a comparison of powers between the different classes.
City and town governments in Washington are classified according to their population at the time of organization (usually incorporation) or reorganization. There are four classification types: first class, second class, town, and code cities, and towns, all of which have different powers under state law. One city in Washington (Waitsburg) remains unclassified.
In addition, each city has a form of government that determines its governance structure: mayor-council, council-manager, or commission.
To see the classification and form of government of any city or town, use MRSC’s Washington City and Town Profiles.
A first class city is a city with a population of 10,000 or more at the time of organization or reorganization that has adopted a charter (RCW 35.01.010). There are 10 first class cities in Washington, with four operating under council-manager and six under mayor-council.
A second class city is a city with a population over 1,500 at the time of organization or reorganization that does not have a charter and does not operate as a code city under the Optional Municipal Code (RCW 35.01.020). There are seven second class cities in Washington, all operating under the mayor-council form.
A town has a population of less than 1,500 at the time of its organization and does not operate under the Optional Municipal Code (RCW 35.01.040). There are 69 towns in Washington, all operating under the mayor-council form.
No new towns may be formed. In 1994, the state legislature increased the population threshold required for incorporation from 300 to 1,500 (RCW 35.02.010). Since an area cannot incorporate unless it has 1,500 inhabitants, and since a town by definition must organize with less than 1,500 inhabitants, it is no longer possible to incorporate as a town.
Most Washington cities are classified as code cities under the Optional Municipal Code (Title 35A RCW). Created in 1967, the Optional Municipal Code provides an alternative to the basic statutory classification system of municipal government. It was designed to provide broad statutory home rule authority in matters of local concern.
Any unincorporated area having a population of at least 1,500 may incorporate as a code city, and any city or town may reorganize as a code city. Code cities with populations over 10,000 may also adopt a charter, but only one city (Kelso) has done so.
There are 194 code cities in Washington, with 144 operating under mayor-council and 49 under council-manager. One code city (Shelton) operates under the commission form.
The below table summarizes some of the key differences between second class cities, code cities, and towns. First class cities are not listed as their powers and structures are derived from their charters, which vary depending on the city.
* Only applies in mayor-council form of government.
Washington Cities Have More Powers Than We Think
Confirmation of Mayoral Appointments (and Terminations) by City or Town Council – Is that OK?
Where are the powers and duties of the different classifications of government set out?
What is the procedure for an incorporated municipality to become a noncharter code city?
Code City Handbook
County Classification and Creation
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So changing to a second-class city with a real mayor that will be influenced by public pressure? Sounds good to me!
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