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As the official name implies, the City and County San Francisco is a consolidated city-county, being simultaneously a charter city and charter county with a consolidated government, a status it has had since 1856. It is the only such consolidation in California and the only California county with a mayor who is also the county executive.

San Francisco is the only California city with a board of supervisors, which is also the city council.

San Francisco's unique status also makes it a municipal corporation and an administrative division of the state. It is in the latter capacity that San Francisco exercises jurisdiction over property that would otherwise be located outside of its corporation limit. San Francisco International Airport, for example, is located in San Mateo County but is owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco. Because counties are administrative divisions of the state, it is legally impossible for two counties to occupy or exercise jurisdiction over the same piece of land. Thus, the airport, which is about 15 miles (24 km) south of downtown San Francisco, is legally part of San Francisco because the municipality owns it.

San Francisco exercises jurisdiction over the Hetch Hetchy Valley and watershed, in Yosemite National Park, pursuant to a perpetual leasehold granted by Act of Congress in 1913, the Raker Act.

Under the current charter, the Government of San Francisco is constituted of two co-equal branches - the executive or administrative branch, which is headed by the mayor and includes other city-wide elected and appointed officials, and the civil service; and the legislative branch, which is constituted of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which exercises general oversight over all city and county functions.

The mayor is elected every four years, in the odd-numbered year that precedes the U.S. presidential election. The current mayor is Gavin Newsom.

If the mayor dies or resigns, the President of the Board of Supervisors assumes the office until a special election can be held.

The 11 members of the Board of Supervisors (as of January 2005) are listed in the table at right by district number. The current president of the Board is Aaron Peskin, who represents District 3.

How the Board of Supervisors shall be elected has been a bone of contention in recent San Francisco history. Throughout the United States, almost all cities and counties with populations in excess of 20,000 divide the jurisdiction into electoral districts (in cities, often called "wards") to ensure proportionate representation of the whole community and to evenly distribute the community interaction workload among the members of the governing body (city council, county board of supervisors, etc.). But California has always been disinclined to follow examples set by the rest of the country; and San Francisco, notwithstanding a population of 0.7 million, has been no exception.

Prior to 1977 and again from 1980 through 2000, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was elected at large. All candidates appeared together on the ballot. The person who received the most votes was elected President of the Board of Supervisors, and the next ten were elected to seats on the board. The first district-based elections in 1977 resulted in a radical change to the composition of the Board, including the election of Harvey Milk, only the third openly gay or lesbian individual (and the first who was male) elected to public office in the United States. Following the assassinations of Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone a year later, by Supervisor Dan White who had just resigned, district elections were deemed divisive and San Francisco returned to at-large elections until the current system was implemented in 2000.

Under the current system, Supervisors are elected by district to four-year terms. The terms are staggered so that only half the board is elected every two years, thereby providing continuity. Supervisors representing odd-numbered districts (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11) are elected every fourth year counted from 2000 (so, 2000, 2004, 2008, etc.). Supervisors representing even-numbered districts (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) were elected to transitional two-year terms in 2000, thereafter to be elected every fourth year (2002, 2006, 2010, etc.).

The President of the Board of Supervisors, under the new system, is elected by the members of the Board from among their number. This is done by secret ballot, typically at the first meeting of the new session commencing after the general election.

The Mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors are subject to term limits under the San Francisco Charter. None may serve more than two consecutive terms. As part of the change to district elections, however, this provision applies to supervisors only as of the first full term of election following its implementation in 2000. Thus, Tom Ammiano, who was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1994 and 1998 under the old system, then again in 2000 under the new system, was able to run yet again in 2004 (and won).

An instant runoff voting system of elections was approved by the electorate and implemented in time for the 2004 general election. This system replaced the old, expensive system of run-off elections. Under this new ranked-choice system, whenever there are more than two candidates for an office, voters rank their choices in order of preference. If a candidate does not achieve a majority of votes cast when the first choice votes are counted, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the second choice votes on those ballots are tabulated and "transferred" to the remaining candidates. The process continues, as necessary, until one candidate achieves a majority of votes cast and is then declared the winner. Eyed warily by some and optimistically by others - in both cases owing to the belief that single-transfer voting might favour so-called "progressive" and "minority party" candidates over so-called "conservative" and "mainstream party" candidates - the 2004 general election results showed that belief to be unfounded, as all incumbent Supervisors were returned to office.

The Mayor's 2005-2006 proposed budget forecasts general fund expenditures of $2.44 billion.

As the largest city on the west coast before World War I, San Francisco became and remains the legal hub for the western United States. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for Northern District of California are headquartered in San Francisco.

The Supreme Court of California is also headquartered in San Francisco, making it the de facto judicial capital of the state. California and Louisiana - its Supreme Court is in New Orleans - are the only U.S. jurisdictions whose highest court and judicial seat is not in the official state or territorial capital. The California Supreme Court also maintains branch offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. In addition, the city is the seat of the First Appellate District of the State Courts of Appeals and the San Francisco County Superior Court.

San Francisco currently has the second highest sales tax rate in California, which stands at 8.50%. It lies behind Alameda County's 8.75%.

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