City of Alameda contends it’s not legally bound by county mandates

City claims a “landmark ruling” in a tenant dispute sets a legal precedent

Alameda City Attorney Yibin Shen with Alameda Point, Alameda
Alameda City Attorney Yibin Shen with Alameda Point, Alameda (City of Alameda, Getty)

The City of Alameda contends a “landmark ruling” in a tenant dispute has set a precedent for whether counties can regulate incorporated cities during times of emergency.

City officials now claim the Alameda Superior Court ruling that the county’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium didn’t apply in a housing dispute between a tenant and the city has set a legal precedent, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

They say it resolved a “long-standing ambiguity” about the power counties have over the cities inside their boundaries.

If the interpretation untested in the courts is correct, cities in Alameda County could ignore ordinances set by the county, from mask mandates and curfews to eviction moratoriums.

“When there’s a set of local laws, whether it’s curfews or emergency response, there is one set of laws that applies to you, not two,” Alameda City Attorney Yibin Shen said in a statement. “The local government in Alameda is the City Council.”

Others question whether the court’s ruling signifies a shift in the balance of power between counties and cities across the state.

Marc Janowitz, who represented the tenant in the case, said the city’s statement was “a wish rather than a fact” and “exaggerating to the point of misleading.” He said as a matter of law, decisions made by lower courts such as Alameda Superior Court don’t hold precedential value.

Judge Victoria Kolakowski, in her decision, wrote that her judgment would “only apply to the parties in this case,” and that it would not affect the county ordinance more broadly.

By the judge’s own words then, the county’s statement is not a landmark case, Janowitz said.

The issue began last April, when the City of Alameda moved to evict tenants from two separate single-family homes on the island’s old military base. At the time, the county had — and still has — a moratorium against evictions when a tenant is unable to pay because of COVID-19 related rent debt.

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The moratorium, which is sent to expire in May, states that it covers incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county.

As a matter of procedure, when evictions are filed, a judge examines the lawsuit and determines if the county’s eviction moratorium should apply. In this instance, the City of Alameda argued the moratorium was unconstitutional, because counties cannot legally regulate incorporated cities.

That approach forced the tenants to defend the constitutionality of a county ordinance, rather than the merits of their eviction cases.

Although the moratorium was ruled constitutional in a different federal lawsuit challenging the same ordinance, the judge in this case ruled in the city’s favor.

Even if the ruling doesn’t ultimately set a larger precedent, more cities may attempt to do so — especially those that have resisted pandemic-era restrictions enacted by county governments.

The notion of autonomy granted to a local government by the state constitution is a thorny one, Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at California State University — Northridge, told the Mercury News

“Once you draw that boundary and you’re a city, you basically have home rule over a bunch of different things, for better or worse,” Hogen-Esch said. “This is a longstanding, probably 100-year debate over ‘How far does the extent of home rule go?’

“It will have to work its way up through the legal system in California, and ultimately the California Supreme Court draws lines about who has this authority.”

— Dana Bartholomew

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