News and Articles

July 3, 2012

Legislature Cannot Require Charter Cities to Pay Prevailing Wages to Contractors on Public Works Projects

Legislature Cannot Require Charter Cities to Pay Prevailing Wages to Contractors on Public Works Projects

State Building and Construction Trades Council of California AFL-CIO v. City of Vista [California Supreme Court No. S173586, filed 7/2/12]

By Andrea A. Matarazzo

The City of Vista – a charter city – entered contracts for construction of public buildings, which were challenged by way of a petition for writ of mandate brought by a federation of labor unions.  The unions asserted that the City must comply with California’s prevailing wage law and pay specified minimum wage levels to its contractors, regardless of local ordinances to the contrary.


Under California’s Constitution, the ordinances of charter cities supersede state law with respect to “municipal affairs” (Cal. Const., art. XI, § 5), but state law is supreme with respect to matters of “statewide concern” (California Fed. Savings & Loan Assn. v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 54 Cal.3d 1, 17).  The unions argued that the subject matter of the state’s prevailing wage law is a “statewide concern” over which the state has primary legislative authority.  The City countered that the matter is a municipal affair and therefore governed by its local ordinances.  A majority of the California Supreme Court agreed with the City.  In so doing, the majority opinion emphasized that the determination of what constitutes a municipal affair (over which the state has no legislative authority) and what constitutes a statewide concern (as to which state law is controlling) is a matter for the courts, not the Legislature, to decide.


According to the majority opinion, “[t]he wage levels of contract workers constructing locally funded public works are certainly a “municipal affair.”  The Court explained that “construction of a city-operated facility for the benefit of a city’s inhabitants is quintessentially a municipal affair, as is the control over the expenditure of a city’s own funds.  Here, the two fire stations in the City of Vista . . . are facilities operated by the city for the benefit of the city’s inhabitants, and they are financed from the city’s own funds.”  Because the state’s prevailing wage law does not exempt charter cities, and because Vista’s ordinance prohibits compliance with that law, the Court went on to conclude that an actual conflict existed between state law and Vista’s ordinance.


When state law and the ordinances of a charter city conflict and a court must decide which controls, “the hinge of the decision is the identification of a convincing basis for legislative action originating in extramunicipal concerns, one justifying legislative supersession based on sensible, pragmatic considerations.”  In other words, for state law to control there must be something more than an abstract state interest; rather, there must be “a convincing basis” for the state’s action.  “Here,” the Court’s majority found, “that convincing justification is not present.”


Authored by:

Andrea A. Matarazzo

Andrea’s practice focuses on land use law and related environmental issues in California and the western United States.  She assists developers, business owners, and public agencies in all aspects of project permitting and entitlements, environmental compliance, and litigation, particularly in connection with environmental review under CEQA and NEPA.  Her practice includes planning and zoning law, endangered species regulations, air quality, water supply and water quality mandates, wetlands, and other regulatory requirements.

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