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Bill Seeks to Limit City Authority in Amending or Adopting Charters

May 17, 2013
Cities, especially charter cities, are urged to review SB 311 (Padilla), a labor-sponsored bill that eliminates flexibility for charter cities proposing to amend their charter and for cities seeking to become a charter city.
SB 311 requires cities to submit city charter amendments, as well as proposed charters, to voters at an established statewide general election. This eliminates the flexibility to place these items before the voters at a regularly scheduled municipal election or statewide primary. However, the bill provides an exception for voter petitions.
According to co-sponsors, the California Professional Firefighters and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, SB 311 was introduced to address low voter turnout. “By putting these important measures before the voters during statewide general elections, SB 311 will increase local voter participation in the decision to adopt or reject a charter.”  
Implementing strategies to increase the number of citizens who turn out at the polls is critical. However, the provisions of SB 311 making significant changes to the timeframe for which charter amendments and proposed charter adoptions can be put before the voters does not address voter turnout. Further, restricting charter amendments and charter adoptions to a two-year election cycle severely restricts cities’ ability to govern effectively and efficiently. 
The League argues that SB 311’s proposed changes create unintended but significant negative consequences. The bill removes a charter city’s authority to choose which election is best for putting charter amendments before the voters. Often charter amendments are needed to avoid litigation, deal with technical issues or generate much needed revenue. Requiring charter cities to wait up to 24 months or two years to make such changes could result in lawsuits or financial distress.   
The rules governing charter adoptions and amendments were significantly changed in 2011 by AB 1344 (Feuer). In addition to making several changes resulting from the abuses in the city of Bell, the State Building and Construction Trades Council sponsored an amendment that also established new rules and procedures for adopting charters. The two most significant changes were:
  1. Cities no longer have the option to put a new charter or charter amendments before the voters at a special election; and
  2. Prior to submitting to the voters the proposed adoption of a charter, a city must hold two public hearings with specified timing and public notice. Essentially putting into place a new 10-week process.
SB 311 comes on the heels of these significant changes to the law and seems premature at best and completely unnecessary and onerous at worst. The changes adopted by the Feuer legislation require cities to go through a very lengthy process and gives ample opportunity for public engagement.   
Take Action
The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 25–9 and is in the Assembly awaiting assignment to a policy committee. With an extensive list of supporters, it is important that city concerns be heard. Despite the impact on charter cities and cities wishing to establish charters, the League has received a handful of letters opposing the bill.
All cities are urged to use the League’s sample letter to register their opposition with the author and their members in the Legislature.

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