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Editorial: SB 649 needs to be vetoed to preserve local government power

By Editorial Board

July 16, 2017 10:16 p.m.

It seems the California state government’s way of empowering local governments is to allow corporations to be above city regulations. At least, that’s what Senate Bill 649 would do.

Earlier this month, the state Assembly began debating SB 649, a bill that changes the permit process telecommunication corporations must go through to install transmitters, antennas and other equipment in neighborhoods. The bill limits the powers of local governments to deny permits and determine where companies can install equipment and how much they can be charged for the construction – basically prioritizing corporate expansion over the rights of local communities to govern themselves.

The bill is sailing through the California State Legislature: the state Senate passed it with only one no-vote, and Assembly committees are sending it through with ease.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has espoused strengthening local government powers in the past, must veto this bill if it arrives on his desk. The bill disempowers local governments and is a shortsighted attempt to increase convenience for telecom corporations at the cost of citizens’ rights.

Under SB 649, telecom companies, such as Verizon and AT&T, would be able to install equipment, such as transmitters the size of refrigerators, by only having to meet state, not city, regulations; city requirements would be circumvented altogether. The purpose of the bill is to streamline the process for installation of telecom equipment, make it easier to improve connectivity and lower cellphone bills in California.

But better connectivity is hardly a convincing service when the bill would effectively be cutting out public input and neighborhood governance altogether. City governments wouldn’t be able to charge companies more than $250 a year for leases unless the two sides agree to a higher charge, massively decreasing the taxes governments can collect.

Westwood itself has seen Verizon attempt to install poles on streets such as Glendon Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. While neighborhood council members said they supported the installation of these devices, they had specific preferences, such as the devices’ appearance and locations around the neighborhood – preferences that, should SB 649 be passed, wouldn’t need to be followed.

Of course, the bill makes exceptions for neighborhoods in coastal zones and historical districts, but that’s not enough. Every local government in California has a right to determine whether it wants to lease space to telecom companies. Citizens deserve to have a say over where relatively large telecom equipment goes in their neighborhoods, especially because these items can be eyesores and even impediments.

As such, Brown needs to veto this bill if it passes through the Assembly. The governor has implied on several occasions that the people closest to an issue are best able to solve it, and he needs to reaffirm his commitment to local governments. Sacramento cannot afford to allow such an underhanded corporate power grab become law.

Certainly, increasing internet access and speed across California can reduce network costs for customers. But these results shouldn’t come at the expense of local governments’ rights. Cities should retain the right to charge telecom companies as they see fit and determine whether or not they want these installations.

The state government needs to recognize the limits of its powers and step back from this attempt to wrest control from localities. And no amount of high network bandwidth will change that.

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