There’s More Than One Way to Draft a City Charter

It's not yet clear whether Costa Mesa residents want to adopt a city charter, the latest effort by the City Council majority to remake the city's government largely through outsourcing.

But some residents are nervous about the Republican council majority's plan to put a proposed charter on the June ballot after just six months and two public hearings. And there have been calls for placing a citizens committee in charge of drafting the document.

The council majority, meanwhile, is pushing to keep the process moving quickly and does not want a charter committee out of a concern that local unions, which oppose the main provisions of the council's proposed charter, would gain control over such a committee and stop the process.

A review of eight California cities that adopted charters over the past decade shows that several adopted charters without a charter commission and that the council majority's timeline for putting the charter on the ballot is not unusual.

The review, however, also showed that residents of cities that did not form charter commissions had significantly less effect on the process. And the nine-page charter document being proposed in Costa Mesa is far longer and more complicated than a typical charter adopted in recent years.

A charter is essentially a city constitution that can grant cities much greater autonomy over local affairs. It's either adopted or rejected by a majority vote of residents. One fourth of California's 482 cities are chartered, according to the League of California Cities.

Another Path Toward Outsourcing

Costa Mesa's move toward a charter comes after its plans to explore outsourcing the work of nearly half its employees were at least temporarily thwarted by a court order.

The city employees' union filed suit last May, arguing that the outsourcing plan breached the city's labor contract and violated a state law that prohibits "general law" cities like Costa Mesa from outsourcing many of their services.

Judge Barbara Tam Nomoto Schumann issued a preliminary injunction in July that stops any outsourcing to the private sector until a final ruling on the case.

If the city adopts a charter, it would be free from the outsourcing restrictions cited in the case.

The current draft of Costa Mesa's charter would remove limitations on outsourcing, 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 requiring payment of state-mandated "prevailing wages" on construction projects unless they're required by law or approved by the City Council.

Costa Mesa's current time frame calls for a total of six months between the council presenting a draft charter and the actual vote in June, including a 2½-month period for the public to suggest changes, which the council majority can choose to incorporate.

The city is following a new law on charter adoptions passed by the state Legislature after revelations that officials in the Los Angeles-area city of Bell awarded themselves massive salaries thanks in part to a charter that exempted the city from a state law on salary limits.

Bell officials held a little-noticed special election for the charter in which less than 1 percent of the city's population approved the measure, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More Participation or a Speedy Process

Opponents of the Costa Mesa proposal say the council majority is trying to push through a charter that radically changes the way the city is governed without giving residents a true say in the process.

"That is egregious that citizens don't have time to respond to the city," said resident Greg Ridge. "It's not the way that local municipal government should be run."

"If it is the right thing, then let's do it the right way," he added.

But the City Council majority is standing firmly behind its approach, saying there's no good reason to slow down the process.

"If the reason is slow it down to just stop it or slow it down just to slow it down, that just doesn't make any sense," Councilman Jim Righeimer said in an interview.

Righeimer wants to put a charter on the ballot in much the same way as Oceanside's City Council did between December 2009 and June 2010. Without any public input, the council majority in the northern San Diego County city placed a charter on the ballot that, among other things, lifted the city's prevailing wage requirements.

And though there wasn't any public input, Oceanside's council got help writing the charter from a major construction industry association, the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Oceanside Councilman Jerry Kern believes the charter has worked out well for the city, claiming that lifting prevailing wage requirements saved $1 million over the first three months.

"It was much cleaner, much simpler," said Kern, who spoke in support of eliminating prevailing wage requirements at a Costa Mesa City Council meeting last year. "You put it on the ballot, you present the idea to the people, and then you go out to the people and sell."

That is exactly what Oceanside did. The charter was approved by 53.8 percent of the city's voters in June 2010.

Those who favor charter commissions say the Oceanside model subverts the democratic process and allows city leaders and their ideological allies to persuade voters to decide on a new form of government that they might not fully understand.

Buena Park Mayor Art Brown said a charter commission was integral to his city's adoption of a charter in 2006. The commission held a total of 20 meetings with community groups to seek input on the charter's language.

At the end of the 28-month process, Buena Park residents adopted a one-page charter. Brown said the commission "was the most important thing" about developing the charter. Not having one "would be a mistake for any city."

Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities, said that cities use charter commissions to ensure there is a focused review before the document goes on the ballot.

"It's not a requirement that cities do that, but it's something that many cities that have considered becoming charter cities felt was a good … process to go through as far as their decision making," Whitnell said.

The Elk Grove Example

In his defense of Costa Mesa's approach, Righeimer has been pointing to the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove as a cautionary tale of the commission process. He asserts that when that city tried to pursue a charter, unions dragged out the process and intimidated commission members so much that the charter was dropped.

"It was [a] 2½-year process." Righeimer said at a Jan. 10 public hearing. "And what happened in that is the attacks that happened to people on that commission were so bad — so bad — that after two and a half years of work and a 17-page document which they brought down to six pages, it never got approved."

From Righeimer's point of view, the city's decision to use an appointed committee ultimately doomed Elk Grove's charter proposal.

But that portrayal is wrong, according to Jake Allen, the head of Elk Grove's now-disbanded charter committee. Allen said the charter didn't make it to the ballot because the City Council decided not to move forward with it, and was disappointed by what he said were efforts by members of the Elk Grove City Council to limit public input in the process.

The timeline was actually shortened from its original two-year schedule, Allen wrote in a letter to the City Council at the end of the commission process.

"What should have been spread over six months, was condensed into 60 days," Allen wrote.

In an interview last week, Allen expressed strong support for the commission process, saying he "absolutely" prefers that a commission rather than a city council draft a charter.

"I definitely believe that the end product that went to the [Elk Grove] council was a very good product," but the council "just killed it completely," he said.

When asked about Allen's description of the dynamic in Elk Grove, which contradicts Righeimer's assertion at the hearing, Righeimer responded that the former commissioner he spoke to, Jake Rambo, told him that commission members became embittered and "it was a brutal process that ultimately failed."

Allen agreed that the charter process in Elk Grove was contentious but said that if he had to do it again, he'd still advocate a commission.

For "something as important as a charter," said Allen, "it should be well-thought out, and it should be done in a fashion that is fair to the community."

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