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Bob Ferguson

AGO 1952 No. 206 -
Attorney General Smith Troy


A second or third class city does not upon attaining a population of 20,000 automatically become a first class city, but advances when a charter is adopted and new officers qualified.

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                                                                  January 8, 1952

Honorable Earl Coe
Secretary of State
Olympia, Washington                                                                                            Cite as:  AGO 51-53 No. 206

Dear Sir:

            Receipt is acknowledged of your letter of January 11, 1952, in which you request our opinion as to whether a city of the second or third class having officially established a population in excess of 20,000 as a result of the 1950 census, automatically advances to the status of a city of the first class.

            It is our conclusion that a city of the second or third class does not automatically advance to the status of a first class city upon officially establishing a population in excess of 20,000, but such advance in classification does not take place until the statutory procedure for organization as a first class city has been completed.


            Section 10, Article XI of the state constitution provides for the classification of cities according to population and authorizes cities having populations of over 20,000 to frame charters for their own government.  The legislature has implemented this constitutional provision by legislation classifying municipalities into first, second and third class cities and fourth class towns, and has provided in chapter 248, Laws of 1907 (Rem. Rev. Stat. § 8933) that any city,

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "* * * which hereafter on the first day of the month of January in any year have, according to an official report or abstract of the then preceding federal or state census, more than twenty thousand inhabitants shall constitute the first class, and shall be organized and governed under the laws relating to cities authorized to frame and adopt their own charters; * * *"

            A complete statutory procedure is provided for the adoption of a charter and organization as a first class city.  There are no statutory provisions for the operation of a first class city on any basis other than under a charter.  The general rule relative to the advancement of cities to a higher class is stated in McQuillin on Municipal Corporations (3rd ed.) § 3.10, as follows:

            "* * * In the absence of a valid regulation to that effect, a city or town on attaining the population of a municipal corporation of a higher class or grade does not thereby ipso facto become a corporation of such class or grade.  The necessary procedure to compass the advancement is usually prescribed in detail, and must be followed to accomplish a change of class.  The prescribed population is jurisdictional, in the absence of which proceedings raising a municipality from one class to a higher class are void.  In addition to the prescribed population, certain legal steps are often required on the part of the municipality which desires to avail itself of the charter applicable to the class it wishes to enter."

            Our Supreme Court on several occasions has said that a city does not advance from one classification to another merely because it has attained the population qualifying it for such advancement.  In the case ofState ex rel. Yakima v. Clausen, 116 Wash. 620, 200 Pac. 311, it was contended that the city of Yakima, which had attained a population in excess of 10,000, but had not followed the statutory proceedings to organize as a second class city, was nevertheless automatically a city of the second class.  The Supreme Court rejected this contention, saying:

            "* * * Section 10, art. 11, of the constitution provides that the legislature, by general law, can prescribe the classification of cities and towns in  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] proportion to their populations, and in pursuance of that constitutional decree, the legislature, in § 7479, Rem. Code, made the classification so that cities having a population of more than 10,000 and less than 20,000 shall be known as those of the second class, and cities of more than 1,500 and less than 10,000 shall be cities of the third class.  To advance from one class to another, the method provided in § 7482 et seq. must be followed.  As we said inState ex rel. Sylvester v. Superior Court, 64 Wash. 594, 117 Pac. 487, cities must comply with these statutory requirements in order to attain the advanced classification."

            The advancement to the new classification does not occur until the organization, under the new classification, has been completed by the election and qualification of officers.  In the case ofState ex rel. Sylvester v. Superior Court, 64 Wash. 594, 117 Pac. 487, our Supreme Court so held, saying:

            "* * * It was never intended that there should be an interval of uncertainty as to the powers and duties of officers between the election determining the advancement and the next annual municipal election actually organizing the new corporation.  It is essential to orderly administration and certainty of authority that the transition from one class to the other be consummated at a fixed and definite time.  Obviously, that time is, and should be, when the new officers qualify.  * * *"

            In keeping with the rules laid down by the authorities cited, it is our opinion that a city does not automatically advance to the first class upon attaining the requisite 20,000 population, but merely becomes eligible for such advancement.  It actually becomes a city of the first class when a charter has been adopted and officers have qualified under the new charter.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General