Limits on Fines
Ends $1,000 limit on fines for violating city ordinances
Removes from the charter the $1,000 limit on fines for violating city ordinances.
What the Measure Would Do
The Oakland City Charter limits the amount that can be charged for violating a city ordinance to $1,000. Measure RR would remove that limit from the charter and allow the City Council to establish a limit by ordinance, following a public hearing.
Oakland utilizes fines to enforce building, planning and other city codes as well as certain city ordinances (such as the Hazardous Tree ordinance). The Planning and Building Department’s code enforcement personnel, for example, respond to complaints of unsafe and unsanitary housing, illegal dumping, graffiti, vacant buildings and unlawful construction, among other issues. These officials provide written courtesy notices, and if those are ignored, they issue fines, which vary based on the violation but cannot exceed $1,000.
Oakland first established a cap on fines in the City Charter in 1911, when the limit was set at $500. The City Council raised this limit to $1,000 in 1968, and it has remained unchanged since then.
The Planning and Building Department has reported challenges with certain repeat code violations and violators, who prefer to pay the relatively low fine instead of the greater costs associated with compliance. One of Oakland’s most persistent code enforcement challenges is illegal dumping. In 2019, it accounted for over 30% of all 311 requests made by residents; the percentage has varied between 30% and 40% since 2010.1 The Public Works Department has reported that the majority of dumping is done by Oakland residents as opposed to people from neighboring cities, and most is occurring in neighborhoods south of Interstate 580.2 In January of this year, the city announced a new campaign to combat illegal dumping. It includes resident ambassadors, an education on affordable or free garbage pickup, new cleaning crews and an enforcement unit.3
The City Council sees Measure RR as a tool to allow for more effective enforcement of code violations such as illegal dumping and violating the city noise ordinance. Giving legislators the ability to raise the city’s limit and make certain fines more expensive could discourage violations.
This measure was put on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the Oakland City Council. As a charter amendment, it requires a simple majority (50% plus one vote) to pass.
Local governments have historically relied on fines (monetary punishment for breaking laws) and fees (payments associated with the use of a service) both to enforce laws and raise revenue. However, fines and fees have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color. Fines are usually enforced without consideration of a violator’s ability to pay; wealthier residents are less affected, but for low-income households, these fines can snowball, create cycles of debt, reduce credit and even result in jail time. A number of jurisdictions around the country have implemented reforms to their municipal fines (including traffic tickets, court fines and library fines) to make enforcement fairer and eliminate policies that reinforce poverty. Oakland doesn’t have comprehensive data on who has been fined for code violations, so it is difficult to know if low-income people are being disproportionately impacted today. If Measure RR passes, it would give the City Council the ability to set a higher fine limit and to use higher fines to combat repeated, intractable offenses. However, removing the city’s $1,000 limit in theory would open the door for higher fines on any violations, which could disproportionately burden those least able to pay.
- By allowing Oakland’s City Council to set fine amounts legislatively, Measure RR would likely lead to more flexible and effective enforcement of city laws.
- Many of Oakland’s code enforcement challenges are related to quality-of-life issues, such as blight and illegal dumping, which impact the health, safety and well-being of residents. Measure RR would likely lead to better enforcement and, in turn, improvements in the city’s public realm.
- Fines often disproportionately burden low-income people and people of color. By removing the limit on fines, this measure could, in theory, open the door to more punitive fines on these communities.
- Measure RR is designed in part to address illegal dumping done by companies based outside of Oakland, but recent reports indicate that most is done by residents. There is concern that low-income residents could get caught up in enforcement directed at larger offenders.
The city’s decades-old cap on fines has hamstrung efforts to fight persistent code enforcement challenges. SPUR supports removing an outdated limit from the City Charter and replacing it with a deliberative approach that can be adjusted legislatively with public input. What’s more, replacing the charter-defined limit with a more public process could spark a conversation about the impact of fines on low-income communities and lead to more equitable outcomes. As the fine limit is adjusted, we encourage Oakland to implement policies that enforce the law but do not disproportionately burden low-income residents, such as lowering fines for low-income people committing minor violations and increasing fines for wealthier individuals and organizations committing major violations.
1. “OAK 311 Service Requests – Interactive Charts,” https://app.powerbigov.us/view?r=eyJrIjoiODE1NDg4MGYtMmJjYy00MTc1LWIyMmEtNzhkNDNlMjM0MDZlIiwidCI6Ijk4OWEyMTgwLTZmYmMtNDdmMS04MDMyLTFhOWVlOTY5YzU4ZCJ9
2. Oakland Public Works Department, “Update on Illegal Dumping,” August 7, 2017, https://oakland.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3108761&GUID=91485569-0C10-4D75-B680-1C999F90AFBA&Options=&Search=
3. City of Oakland, “Oaktown PROUD: Prevent & Report Our Unlawful Dumping,” https://www.oaklandca.gov/topics/illegal-dumping