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Yountville Mayor Cautions Proposed Changes to Utilities Liability for Wildfires are Likely Unconstitutional

Cities Should Join the League and Oppose Changes to Inverse Condemnation

August 10, 2018
Yountville Mayor John Dunbar testified for a second time before the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee in just two weeks.
His testimony on Aug. 9 called attention to cities’ opposition to a proposal that would place new liability on cities and make it harder for local governments to recover from wildfire disasters. 
Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), committee co-chair, started by stating that the issue of inverse condemnation and electric utilities will likely receive the most attention of any of the thousands of bills introduced this year in the last weeks of session.
Committee members continued the discussion on inverse condemnation that they began in their first hearing on July 25. The League opposes reducing the inverse condemnation standard for incidents caused by a utility, whether retroactive or otherwise, and supports ensuring that local governments can recover applicable damages. Local agencies cannot recover all costs from disasters and this method (inverse condemnation) is the method that allows local governments to recoup losses and rebuild communities.
After sharing what happened in Yountville in 2017 when a wildfire forced the evacuation of the 1,000 residents of the California Veterans Home, Mayor Dunbar stressed how local governments are on the forefront of wildfire disaster preparedness and response. He echoed a number of the other experts and questioned the legality of the proposed changes.
“The Governor’s proposal to the liability rules may be unconstitutional because it violates an individual’s right to receive just compensation and should be evaluated in a court of law,” said Mayor Dunbar.
Utilities should be equally prepared and responsive in such dangerous conditions. Proposals to change inverse condemnation rules open the door to allow utilities to pass off liability to other entities and reduce damage recovery that victims would receive. Victims of fires, including local agencies, should continue to receive just compensation for damage incurred.
Next Steps
The committee will continue its work in the coming final weeks of the legislative session. Cities should oppose the proposed changes to inverse condemnation.
The League has prepared a sample opposition letter that cities can use.

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