Board of Supervisors
Unlike the separation of powers that characterizes the federal and state governments, the Board of Supervisors is both the legislative and the executive authority of the county. It also has quasi-judicial authorities.
Government Code Section 25000 requires each county to have a Board of Supervisors consisting of five members. The section applies to general law counties and to charter counties, except where the charter provides otherwise (e.g., San Francisco City and County has eleven members and one mayor). A board member must be a registered voter of, and reside in, the district from which the member is elected. A county charter can provide a local method for filling vacancies on the Board of Supervisors. In the absence of such a provision, the Governor appoints a successor.
A majority of the members of the Board constitutes a quorum for conducting business. A majority of all the members must concur on any act of the Board. A Board may enact rules governing how abstentions are counted. Some extraordinary actions, like passing emergency ordinances, require four votes.
An official act of the Board of Supervisors can only be performed in a regularly or specially convened meeting. The individual members have no power to act for the county merely because they are members of the Board of Supervisors. Meetings of the Board of Supervisors are subject to the restrictions of the Ralph M. Brown Act (Government Code Section 54950 et. seq.). With limited exceptions, the Brown Act requires that all Board of Supervisors meetings be open and public. The county clerk, whose duty it is to record all proceedings of the Board of Supervisors, is the ex officio clerk of the Board, unless the Board appoints its own separate clerk. The Board must keep a record of its decisions and the proceedings of all regular and special meetings.
Board of Supervisor Powers
The Board of Supervisors exercises its power and authority by undertaking the following roles: executive, legislative, and quasi-judicial.
The Board performs its executive role when it sets priorities for the county. The Board oversees most county departments and programs and annually approves their budgets; supervises the official conduct of county officers and employees; controls all county property; and appropriates and spends money on programs that meet county residents’ needs.
Supervision of County Officials
The Board of Supervisors may supervise the official conduct of county officers and require them faithfully to discharge their duties, but the Board cannot add to those duties or relieve the officers from these obligations. The Board may not direct or control the day-to-day operations of a county department, or otherwise limit the exercise of discretion vested by law in a particular officer.
The supervision of elected officers by the Board of Supervisors is somewhat more limited. The district attorney, as public prosecutor, is a state or quasi-state officer and is under the direct supervision of the attorney general. Consequently, the Board of Supervisors does not have supervisory authority over the district attorney’s prosecutorial duties. On the other hand, the Board has general supervisory authority over the district attorney to the extent that the district attorney functions as a county officer.
The Board of Supervisors may supervise the sheriff to the extent that the sheriff acts as a county officer, and may investigate the officer’s performance of county duties. However, in enforcing state law, the sheriff is acting as a peace officer of the state and is under the direct supervision of the attorney general. In addition to being an officer of the county, the sheriff is also an officer of the courts. While acting in that capacity, the sheriff is not under the supervision of the Board, and the Board may not investigate the sheriff in connection with such duties. The assessor is also under state control in many respects, but not to the same degree as are the district attorney and sheriff.
The Board of Supervisors has a unique relationship with the courts. The Board shares funding responsibility for the courts with the state and cannot fully control their budget or operations. As a court of record (i.e., maintain records of proceedings), the court has all powers (i.e., inherent powers as defined in the law) reasonably required to enable it to perform its judicial functions efficiently, to protect its dignity, independence, and integrity, and to make its lawful actions effective. But inherent powers have limits. The court may not exercise its powers in such a manner as to thwart, nullify, or frustrate legitimate legislative bodies. To this end, there are some conditions on the court’s ability to order the Board of Supervisors to provide funding.
The Board of Supervisors also has the power to direct and control the conduct of litigation in which the county or any public entity which the Board governs is a party, and by a two-thirds vote, it may employ outside attorneys to assist the county counsel in conducting such litigation. The decision to hire special counsel is up to the supervisors.