Costa Mesa City Council Puts Proposed Charter on June Ballot

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Over the objections of most residents who came to voice their opinions on the issue, the Costa Mesa City Council voted Tuesday to place a proposed city charter on the June primary ballot.

In rejecting requests to postpone the vote until the November general election, the council’s majority said the charter needs to be adopted as soon as possible so the city can get its financial house in order. There is no harm in putting the proposed charter, which was drafted by the council, before voters in June, the council said.

“All we’re doing today, if we go forward, is putting a [charter] on the ballot, giving the opportunity to all the voters of Costa Mesa to tell us if they like it or if they don’t like it,” Mayor Gary Monahan said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “The world is not going to end.”

But as has been the case throughout the three months since the charter was first proposed, many residents expressed concern over the pace and approach of the council’s process. They’ve asked that the referendum be postponed until at least November and want a citizens commission, not the City Council, in charge of drafting the document.

“Why on the June ballot, when very few people will come to the ballot to vote?” asked resident Flo Martin. June primary elections have lower voter turnout than general elections.

The council’s decision on the charter, like many votes in Costa Mesa, was approved 4-1, with Councilwoman Wendy Leece in opposition.

The charter effort is being spearheaded by the council majority in the midst of a legal challenge to its efforts to remake the city’s government largely through outsourcing. A judge has issued a preliminary court order blocking any contracting of city services to the private sector.

A charter is essentially a local constitution that gives city governments greater authority over some local affairs. The charter proposed by the Costa Mesa council majority is far longer and more detailed than the typical charter passed by cities of its size in recent years and is aimed primarily at reducing the power of public employee unions.

In addition to opening the city to large-scale outsourcing, the charter would prohibit union dues collected by the city from being spent on political activities. It would also 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.

Tuesday night’s move sets off what is likely to be a heated political campaign, with the council majority and its supporters on one side and the citizens group Costa Mesans for Responsible Government on the other. The citizens group recently became a formal political action committee. It was unclear Tuesday how involved local labor unions will be, though council members have said they expect employee associations to fight the measure.

The council majority says the charter will help improve the city’s financial position.

“This council is trying to find ways to make sure that we have the available resources to maintain a safe and healthy community,” said Councilman Eric Bever.

But the vast majority of the residents who spoke Tuesday opposed the council’s approach.

“If you guys are really about local control, why don’t you let the locals have control and write the darned thing?” asked Robin Leffler, president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government.

Councilwoman Leece agreed with much of the criticism. “I think we do show disrespect to our residents by not putting this on the November election” ballot, she said.

A recent Voice of OC review of California cities that adopted charters over the past decade shows that several approved them without a charter commission, though residents had significantly less effect on the process in cities that didn’t use commissions.

Some residents, however, did express support for the council on Tuesday.

”I agree with you, Mr. Mayor,” said one speaker. “Let the people vote on it.”

The charter election is projected to cost between $97,500 and $127,500. The City Council also unanimously approved placing the charter’s full text on the ballot, at an additional estimated cost of $14,500.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer was confident that voters will approve the measure. “I think this charter’s going to pass,” he said. “I think it’s going to pass with flying colors.”

Leece had a different view. “We’ll just have to see what happens in June and what the people of Costa Mesa want,” she said.

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

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