The City of Burlingame was incorporated in 1908. As a General Law city, Burlingame is subject to the general laws of the State of California. The State Government code is the fundamental law of the City, specifying the powers and the form of government that will put these powers into service. This is different from a Charter City, which has more control over local municipal affairs. Charter provisions covering municipal affairs prevail over the State laws when the two are in conflict.

Burlingame’s form of government is City Council-Manager. Under this form, power is concentrated in the elected City Council, which hires a professional administrator (the City Manager) to implement its policies. The City Council is responsible for setting policy and for the overall direction of City operations. The Council is ultimately accountable to the citizens for the management of City services. The City Manager is directly responsible to the Council for the management of City departments and has the responsibility for preparing the budget, directing day-to-day operations, hiring and firing personnel, and serving as the Council's chief policy advisor. Department Heads, in turn, are directly responsible to the City Manager for the management of their departments.

The City Council-Manager form of government is the most common, and according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), has grown in use from 48 percent in 1996 to 55 percent in 2006. It is most popular in cities with populations over 10,000.