Costa Mesa Council Authorizes City to Seek Charter Status

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The Costa Mesa City Council voted early Wednesday morning to place a charter proposal on the June 5 primary ballot, the latest effort by the Republican council’s majority to limit the influence of city employee unions.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer presented a draft charter he said would “give local control” to Costa Mesa and allow the City Council to outsource any services it wants.

The draft charter would also prohibit union dues from being spent on political activities, require a citywide vote in order to increase workers’ retirement benefits, and prevent the city from paying “prevailing wages” unless they’re required by law or get council approval.

The move toward a charter city, approved 3-1 with Councilwoman Wendy Leece opposing, comes as the city’s attempt to outsource a majority of its services is being challenged in court by the Costa Mesa Employees Association.

Costa Mesa made national headlines in March when it issued layoff notices to nearly half the city’s workers. The union’s lawsuit, filed in May, alleges that because Costa Mesa is a general-law city, the state’s constitution limits its outsourcing to “special services.”

In July, Superior Court Judge Barbara Tam Nomoto Schumann issued a preliminary injunction that bars the city from outsourcing to the private sector. And late last month, she denied the city’s attempt to dismiss part of the suit. The trial is scheduled in April.

If Costa Mesa became a charter city, it could bypass the state’s “special services” restriction on outsourcing.

“What is clear is that if you’re a charter city, you can outsource it all,” Righeimer said.

The state constitution allows a city to develop a charter — essentially its own constitution — that enables it to enact certain policies and structures that would otherwise be prohibited under state law.

About 25 percent of California’s cities are chartered, according to the League of California Cities.

As has been the case since the outsourcing battle began early this year, Leece was vocal in her opposition to Righeimer’s plan.

“I really am insulted that one person would have the authority and the power among an elected five-member city council to present a document this important to us” without discussion during a study session, Leece said.

“It’s the quality of service that our employees give us that makes us a great city,” she added.

Sixteen audience members spoke to the council about the plan, with some showing support for wresting control from Sacramento and enacting provisions they believe will save money.

Oceanside Councilman Jerry Kern, who was there to support the charter effort, said that eliminating the prevailing wage requirement usually saves cities about 20 percent on public works projects. “You can actually provide more services to your taxpayers for the same amount of money,” said Kern.

“The costs are where this thing is going to pass,” said Colin McCarthy, president of Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association.

Others questioned the content of the draft charter and the council’s intent.

“When you’re trying to abolish — or not require — prevailing wage to be paid, you’re going to damage not only the employers, [but] the workers, and the workers in this area,” said Jim Adams of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.

“This is being done badly, it’s being done wrong, and it’s being done for the wrong reasons,” said Costa Mesa resident Greg Ridge.

Residents have a month to submit new language for the charter. Nothing may be added after a public hearing on Jan. 10.

Members of the public will have an opportunity to speak about the proposed charter’s language at hearings scheduled for Jan. 10, Jan. 24, Feb. 14 and March 6, with an optional meeting on Jan. 31.

The charter would appear on the June 5 presidential primary ballot and can pass with a majority vote.

The draft charter begins on page five of this staff report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the June 5 charter vote as a “charter amendement” and misspelled the name of Costa Mesa resident Greg Ridge. The previous version also did not fully explain the draft charter’s language on prevailing wages. We regret the errors and omission.

You can reach Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com

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