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Santa Rosa adds fines for COVID-19 with exemption for landlords

Santa Rosa has joined Sonoma County in imposing fines of up to $10,000 for coronavirus scofflaws, though the city aims to issue warnings before any citations and exempt landlords altogether.

The City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to pass a system of fines for residents, business owners and property owners for violations of the public health rules put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The council’s action will bring about a marked increase in coronavirus enforcement by Santa Rosa, which lacks the public health authority of Sonoma County and has taken a backseat to county counterparts in fighting COVID-19 since mid-March.

The city's COVID-19 fine program was written as an urgency ordinance, which needed at least five votes and got seven. It took effect immediately upon passage around 7 p.m. Tuesday — but not until council members added an exemption for landlords, giving them some breathing room if, for example, local investigators find that tenants violated public health rules by throwing a party.

“As a bottom line, if I’m the person having the party, I should get the ticket, and I don’t think the landlord should be held responsible in that case,” said Councilman John Sawyer, a landlord himself.

The council also decided that owners of short-term rentals, such as Airbnb hosts, would be exempt as long as they furnish guests with information about the public health orders

The lone voice from the public to speak on the issue was Alex Khalfin, North Bay vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association, which asked the city for extra protections for landlords and property managers.

“We frankly believe that it’s not fair to essentially hold those folks responsible ... for violations that were caused by the tenants,” Khalfin said.

A key backdrop for Tuesday’s discussion are the multiple levels of state and local bans on evictions, which ordinarily represents the ultimate recourse for landlords. The California Judicial Council, which sets courts’ policy statewide, decided in April to suspend almost all eviction proceedings, effectively banning evictions during California’s existing coronavirus state of emergency. Santa Rosa and Sonoma County also have adopted their own eviction protections for renters who have lost income as a result of the padenmic.

Santa Rosa’s fines mirror Sonoma County’s: $100 for residents, and $1,000 to up to $10,000 for nonresidential violators. However, council members also decided to require the city to give warnings before issuing any fines.

Calls of violations will be handled by the city’s code enforcement officers, who couldn’t enforce the county’s fines and needed the city’s rules to be changed to get involved. The city plans to commit at least two code enforcement officers to handle reports of people or businesses flouting COVID-19 rules.

Santa Rosa police may also investigate cases referred by the county, City Attorney Sue Gallagher said in an email following the vote.

The program is meant to complement and does not replace the Police Department’s ability to investigate health order violations as criminal misdemeanors nor the city’s ability to secure a court order against violators.

Gallagher expressed concern early in the meeting about the apartment association’s preferred language, noting that the ordinance as proposed was similar to how existing codes were written in terms of liability.

“We need that ability to go after the owner,” Gallagher said. Even with the ban on evictions, landlords “do have leverage over their tenants,” she said, as well as “responsibility for addressing public nuisances.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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