Cities score critical wins on environmental issues, Brown Act relief, and short-term rentals as bill signing deadline looms

Sep 29, 2021

Gov. Gavin Newsom also took action on bills related to housing, disallowed compensation, water and sewer rate laws, and shelter-in-place tax relief.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is working his way through the 800 bills on his desk with positive results for cities in the areas of climate change resiliency, Brown Act relief, and short-term rentals. Unfortunately, he also signed several housing bills that could alter existing housing plans. The Governor has yet to sign or veto any of Cal Cities’ public safety, infrastructure, or community services priority bills on his desk.  

SB 9, AB 215, and other housing bills signed

The Governor has signed several housing bills into law, including SB 9 (Atkins) and AB 215 (Chiu), despite significant opposition from the League of California Cities and coalition partners.

SB 9 requires local governments to ministerially approve a housing development containing two residential units in single-family zones and urban lot splits. This ‘by right’ or mandatory approval scheme circumvents an important local government review process that includes extensive public engagement. Moreover, it does not guarantee the construction of affordable housing; it is simply a sweetheart deal for developers that silences local communities.

AB 215 adds a new step in the housing element certification process that requires 40 additional days and creates a new three-year statute of limitations for any action brought pursuant to the AB 72 enforcement process. It also allows the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to appoint or contract with other counsel to represent the department when the Attorney General declines to represent HCD in an AB 72 enforcement action.

The Governor also signed AB 602 (Grayson) and AB 838 (Friedman) into law, both of which Cal Cities opposed. Cal Cities will continue to explore all options to ensure local governments have the necessary tools and resources to plan for the types of housing actually needed in their communities.

New laws create additional funding and fiscal certainty for environmental issues

Multiple environmental quality bills with positive outcomes for cities were signed in the last two weeks. SB 170 (Skinner) and SB 155 (Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review) provide a combined $14.5 billion for environmental-related issues. SB 170 includes $60 million in grant funding to help cities implement SB 1383 organic waste regulations and $100 million in organic waste infrastructure. SB 155 contains $200 million continuously appropriated to CalFire for healthy forest and fire prevention programs, prescribed burns, and other fuel reduction projects, as well as grant funding to mitigate the effects of extreme heat and sea level rise. Both bills were summarized in a recent Cal Cities article.

SB 323 (Caballero) will provide much-needed fiscal certainty for city officials: It gives public agency water and sewer rates the same protections already afforded to fees and charges that fund other essential government services. The bill also narrows the window of time an interested party can bring a validation action to 120 days after a fee or charge becomes effective. The new legislation strikes a balance between the interests of ratepayers and the need for public agencies to maintain reliable sources of revenue.

The Governor also signed SB 1 (Atkins), creating the California Sea Level Rise State and Regional Support Collaborative within the Ocean Protection Council. The collaborative will provide support for local agencies for the identification, assessment, and mitigation of sea level rise and can expend up to $100 million annually in grants to local and regional governments updating land use plans to account for sea level rise. It also increases coordination between coastal city officials and the California Coastal Commission when updating local coastal plans to combat sea level rise.

Other notable new laws include AB 33 (Ting), AB 332 (Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials), AB 758 (Nazarian), and SB 109 (Dodd).

Brown Act relief provided, but major pension bill falls short

Throughout the month of September, the state has provided much-needed Brown Act relief, first in the form of Executive Order N-15-21— which allowed cities to continue meeting remotely in accordance with procedures established by prior Executive Orders until Sept. 30 — and later, AB 361 (Rivas), which was signed by the Governor and is now in effect. AB 361 allows cities to continue meeting remotely during proclaimed states of emergency under modified Brown Act requirements that are similar, but not identical to the rules and procedures established by previous Brown Act executive orders.

The Governor signed SB 278 (Leyva), despite intense opposition from Cal Cities members and coalition partners. The bill requires public agencies and schools to directly pay retirees and/or their beneficiaries disallowed retirement benefits using general fund and Proposition 98 dollars. SB 278 places 100% of the total liability for overpayments on public agencies, abdicating all responsibility previously held by CalPERS. Moreover, it fails to acknowledge that memoranda of understanding are done with mutual agreement and understanding of the laws that guide pensionable compensation. It is the responsibility of all parties — including CalPERS, which creates the regulations — to ensure that compensation as mutually agreed by both labor and management legal teams is a lawful benefit.

SB 270 Durazo, a Cal Cities-opposed bill, was also signed into law. It unfairly creates new types of litigation damages against public agencies related to a mostly bureaucratic task that cities already comply with.

Short-term rental bill signed; now in effect

Two revenue and taxation bills with positive impacts were signed by the Governor: SB 60 (Glazer) and SB 219 (McGuire). SB 60, which had an urgency clause and is now in effect, allows cities to impose a fine of up to $5,000 for public health and safety violations of a short-term rental ordinance. Under previous law, fines were too low to deter violations and were often considered a part of doing business.

SB 219 will provide flexibility to residents unable to pay their property taxes due to economic hardship caused by a shelter-in-place order. Property taxes are only statutorily collected twice a year, with unbending requirements to pay by 5 p.m. on April 10 and Dec. 10. Executive Order N-61-20 authorized county tax collectors to provide relief for a specified time period through May 2021. The new law picks up where the executive order ends by addressing any future payment deadlines that pass during a shelter-at-home order. This ensures that local governments can function in an uninterrupted fashion during a lengthy emergency but are nimble enough to help individuals experiencing hardship.