Huntington Beach Council Divided on City Charter Changes

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The Huntington Beach City Council is in agreement that Surf City’s charter needs to be changed. However, straw votes taken at a Monday study session show that the body is divided on exactly how it wants the document changed.

In 2009, the Huntington Beach Charter Review Commission was established to make reccomendations on changes to the current city charter. The commission submitted its reccommendations last month. Once approved by the City Council, the proposed changes will be put on the November ballot.

Among the changes drawing the most attention is a proposal to change the city administrator’s title to city manager and give this person ultimate authority over the hiring and firing of appointed department heads. Another key change is a provision that mandates that 15 percent of the general fund go toward infrastructure improvements.

A couple of council members said hiring and firing authority should stay with the council because it is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the city. Others dickered over which department heads should be exempt from the city manager’s purview. And there was discussion regarding the ramifications of the proposed infrastructure spending requirements.

Mayor Cathy Green argued against handing over the power to fire department heads to the city manager, citing the oath that council members take as reason for keeping that power.

“I’ve never seen a city administrator or city manager take an oath of office,” Green said.

Councilwoman Jill Hardy agreed and said that holding department heads accountable was an important power to have so the council members would be able to answer to the demands of their constituents.

“Whether the council has the responsibility or not, we’re going to get blamed for it,” Hardy said.

Councilman Don Hansen said hiring and firing decisions become too political when the ultimate authority rests with council members. “I would submit that it’s 100 percent politics,” said Hansen, who along with Devin Dwyer were vocal in their support of the change.

Councilman Joe Carchio unsuccessfully attempted to exempt the police and fire chiefs from the city manager’s new hiring and firing jurisdiction. Carchio said these positions are “extraordinary” and need to be set apart from the rest of the department heads. He also argued that they are “probably on the same level” as the city manager.

The motion for the changes to the city administrator position passed on a narrow 4-3 vote, with Hansen, Dwyer, Councilman Gil Coerper and Councilman Keith Bhor voting yes. Carchio, Hardy and Green voted no.

The council also narrowly approved the inclusion of the infrastructure fund in the city charter. Though some council members voiced concern that requiring 15 percent of general fund monies to go toward infrastructure would mean a $6 million shortfall over the next five years.

“Greece should ring a bell here,” Dwyer said.

Coerper proposed changing council member term limits from two consecutive four-year terms — with a mandatory two-year break before seeking a third term — to three consecutive four year terms. The proposed change was not part of the new charter, but Coerper attempted to inject the change on the fly and said council members need more time to get things done.

Carchio agreed with Coerper, saying that the challenges of running a city today require three terms for a council member to accomplish his goals. “Three terms is something that’s a little more realistic in these times,” Carchio said.

The motion died, however, as Coerper failed to muster the support of two other council members.

Finally, the council voted to strip the requirement that elected department heads — namely the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer — have management experience to be eligible candidates for office.

The charter will come back to the council for final approval on June 7. Residents will then get a chance to vote on the charter at the polls.

— ADAM ELMAHREK

 

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