This post was authored by Lisa S. Charbonneau.
Under Article XI, Sections 4 and 5 of the California Constitution, charter cities and counties have exclusive authority to regulate and determine their own municipal affairs, free from intrusion by the state. These provisions of the Constitution are collectively referred to as the municipal affairs clause and have given rise to what is known as the “home rule” or “municipal affairs” doctrine. At its essence, the home rule doctrine embodies the principle that a municipality knows its wants and needs better than the state at large.
The origins of the home rule doctrine lie in the creation of the state of California itself. That is, when the original California Constitution was ratified in 1849, many municipalities within the state had operated autonomously for decades using their own laws, government structures, and tax systems. In the face of the new power emanating from Sacramento, many established municipalities (such as Los Angeles or San Francisco) were skeptical of the state legislature and favored local autonomy. The municipal affairs clause and the home rule doctrine reflect that sentiment; they evidence an affirmative adjustment to the political relationship between the state and municipalities that grants charter cities and counties the power to regulate their own municipal affairs. For more on the history of municipal affairs in California, click here or here.
A case from 1899 involving the City and County of San Francisco (CCSF), Popper v. Broderick, exemplifies how the home rule doctrine has been invoked and applied. In 1897, the state passed a bill setting minimum salaries for municipal police and fire personnel that were higher than that paid by many municipalities at that time. For example, whereas the new state bill set the minimum salary for a police chief at $5000 per year, the police chief of San Francisco was only paid $4000 per year. In response, San Francisco resident Max Popper sued to prevent CCSF from raising the salaries of any affected CCSF employees to comply with the new state law. According to Popper, the law was an unconstitutional intrusion into a purely municipal affair; the state lacked the power to force the taxpayers of CCSF to pay increased compensation to its police and fire personnel. In 1899, the California Supreme Court agreed, finding that the constitution’s home rule provisions were intended “to prevent the constant tampering [by the state] with matters which concern only or chiefly the municipality” and that “the pay of firemen and policemen clearly falls within the term ‘municipal affairs.’”
Since Popper, numerous California courts have taken up the issue of whether wages and salaries paid by charter cities and counties to their employees constitute a municipal affair. For example, in 1979, the California Supreme Court held that a state law preventing public agencies from providing cost-of-living increases to their employees violated the home rule provisions of the California Constitution because the determination of wages paid to employees of charter cities and counties is a matter of local rather than state-wide concern. In another example, the First District Court of Appeal held in 2008 that overtime pay and meal and rest breaks constitute matters of local concern, and that thus, under the home rule doctrine, provisions in the Labor Code regulating overtime and meal and rest breaks do not apply to charter cities and counties.
Today, charter cities and counties regularly invoke the home rule doctrine in response to attempts by various interests to apply inapplicable state regulation to charter cities and counties or to otherwise regulate on a state-level the goings-on within charter cities and counties. Thus, courts throughout the state continue to apply a doctrine born in the 1800s to the modern day realities of state versus local government, with varying results. Charter cities and counties should consult legal counsel to evaluate the applicability of the home rule doctrine to any particular state law or regulation that appears to address what may be a purely municipal matter.