Public to Costa Mesa Council: Slow Down on Charter Push

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As the Costa Mesa City Council continues its push to put a city charter proposal on the June ballot, it is receiving this message from many city residents: Slow down.

More than 100 people packed the council’s chambers Tuesday for a hearing on the proposed charter, and dozens told council members that they weren’t happy with the way the charter process is being rushed.

“I’m asking you to slow this process down, to think it through. At this point, we have barely a month” to propose changes, said Elanor Egan, a 25-year resident of Costa Mesa. “It’s full of holes, it’s got more holes than Swiss cheese with a mouse in it.”

The City Council plans to collect the last suggestions from the public on Feb. 13 in order to qualify the charter for the June 5 primary ballot. It was first proposed on Dec. 6.

Alternatives include having an elected, 15-member charter commission draft the document or delaying the charter vote at least until the November general election. Councilwoman Wendy Leece’s attempts to pursue those options gained no support from other council members. Councilman Eric Bever was absent.

Councilman Jim Righeimer said he has yet to find a city in California that has used the commission process in the past 30 years or so and successfully enacted a charter. He said a charter commission in Elk Grove went nowhere. He’s been told that public employee unions intend to slow down the process. he said.

Every city in California may develop a charter, essentially its own constitution, that enables it to enact certain policies and structures that would otherwise be prohibited under state law.

The charter’s provisions may be drafted either by a city council or an elected, 15-member commission, then approved or rejected by a majority vote of the public. About 25 percent of California’s cities are chartered, according to the League of California Cities.

The City Council’s move to draft a charter comes as its attempt to outsource a large number of services is being challenged in court by the city’s municipal employees’ union, the Costa Mesa Employees Association.

Costa Mesa made national headlines last March when it issued layoff notices to nearly half the city’s workers. The union then filed a lawsuit alleging that the plans are illegal because Costa Mesa is a general law city subject to the state constitution’s limit of 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. She later denied the city’s attempt to dismiss part of the suit. The trial is scheduled to start in April.

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

The council’s draft charter also includes a provision preventing the city from requiring contractors to pay state-determined prevailing wages unless they’re required by law or get council approval.

Council members cited savings of up to 15 percent on projects by not requiring prevailing wages, though many speakers challenged those figures and argued that removing the requirement would cost more in the long term because of lower-quality construction.

While most who asked the Council to preserve prevailing wages were union representatives, several other prevailing wage supporters emphasized that they were not affiliated with unions.

“Ten years down the road, it’s going to cost you more money … if you don’t enforce prevailing wage in the city of Costa Mesa,” said Julie Neff, the executive director and attorney for the OC chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.

Of the 55 speakers, 29 voiced opposition to the speed of the process, 26 supported maintaining the prevailing wage requirement, and three supported the council’s plans.

“I believe you’re doing a good job, I believe that we should have a charter city,” said Phil Morello, who said he was out of work for three years until November.

“I believe this is about money, not a power grab,” Morello continued, saying he’s seen “contractor after contractor after contractor come up here and tell us that this is a bad thing for the city. I mean, they wouldn’t be coming up here if it wasn’t about money, if it wasn’t going to hurt them in the pocketbook.”

Tuesday’s meeting was a clear indication that Costa Mesa residents are engaged in the charter issue. City spokesman Bill Lobdell said that so far the city had received  more than 100 suggestions from the public for the proposed charter language.

Members of the public may submit new language for the proposed charter until Feb. 13, and the council plans to vote March 6 to place it on the June 5 presidential primary ballot.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

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