Del Mar appears headed for a referendum this November on restoring the full breadth of the city’s “home rule” powers, thereby bolstering its ability to resist certain state dictates.
Mayor Dwight Worden and Councilwoman Ellie Haviland are working on an amendment to the city’s charter that would reverse steps taken two decades ago that made Del Mar more beholden to the whims of Sacramento. The duo hope to get the measure onto this year’s ballot, where it would require a simple majority for passage.
The California Constitution delineates two kinds of municipal governments: “charter law” cities and “general law” cities, according to the the League of California Cities. General law cities are bound by state legislation in all instances. Charter law, also known as the “home rule” provision of the state constitution, gives a city “supreme authority” over its municipal affairs—essentially allowing a city’s law on certain topics to supersede a state law on the same topic. That override, however, does not extend to legislation deemed as having “statewide significance.”
More than 100 of California’s 480 municipalities operate under charter law, according to a 2007 analysis by the League of California Cities. That list includes San Diego, Carlsbad, El Cajon, Oceanside, San Marcos, Santee and Vista.
Del Mar incorporated in 1959 as a charter city, and in that charter gave itself power to collect admissions tax on certain events at the fairgrounds. That provision held for decades until a 2001 court challenge, the fallout of which effectively stripped the city of its full charter powers.
“The amendment would add language that would restore that power that we voluntarily gave away 50 years ago,” Worden said. “To me, the bottom line is that if the charter is amended, it wouldn’t exempt us from state rule but it would allow us to decide a lot of things locally without having to get state approval.”
While the state constitution does not explicitly define what qualifies as a “municipal affair” versus matters of “statewide significance,” it does spell out “core” topics that fall under a charter city’s purview: operating a police force and most aspects of municipal elections.
Beyond that, the distinction is left to the courts. While those rulings have varied greatly over California’s long history of municipal-state power-grabbing, courts have consistently recognized charter cities’ domain over land use and zoning decisions (with notable exceptions), how to spend municipal tax revenues and certain kinds of contracts.
Worden had a front-row seat to those power dynamics as Del Mar’s city attorney from 1977 to 1983 and special counsel for another two decades after. The impetus to amend the city charter now arose in large part, Worden said, from a spate of state housing mandates “that are trying to dictate to cities that one size fits all.”
“This amendment would give us more flexibility,” Worden said. “Some of those laws, we would not have to comply with. We would still have to do a housing element and contribute our share [of housing], but some of the details and specifics we might not.”
Del Mar’s other most frequent inter-jurisdictional run-ins are with the Del Mar Fairgrounds—owned by the state and administered through its Department of Agriculture—and the California Coastal Commission, which for 40 years has enjoyed ultimate say over nearly all land-use decisions across nearly all of Del Mar.
While the California Coastal Act—the source of the Coastal Commission’s powers—is incontrovertibly seen as having “statewide significance,” charter cities tend to have a stronger position on some of the agency’s guidelines, Worden said.
Tensions between Del Mar and the fairgrounds date back decades. Most of the fairgrounds sits on city land, but its operations are exclusive domain of the state-funded 22nd District Agricultural Association and its state-appointed board of directors. Recent points of contention include noise violations by the KAABOO music festival; plans to convert the fairgrounds’ off-track betting center into a 1,869-seat concert venue and exhibition hall; a now-abandoned cannabis festival; and the five gun shows that the fairgrounds hosts each year.
Charter cities are also allowed to diverge from their own General Plan. Worden and Haviland, however, do not want Del Mar to go that far.
The two first-term councilmembers are ironing out their draft of the charter amendment in hopes of presenting it to the rest of the city council at its April 2 or April 16 meeting. If the full council agrees, the amendment would need to go through the city’s planning commission and a thorough analysis by the city attorney in time to make the summer deadline for getting onto this November’s ballot.