Costa Mesa Places Charter Initiative on November Ballot

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On an expected 4-1 vote, Costa Mesa’s City Council majority Tuesday night authorized a city charter initiative for the November ballot, thus setting up an Election Day showdown between the Orange County Republican Party’s favorite city council and a coalition of city employee unions and local activists.

If approved by voters, the proposed charter would legally enable the city to pursue an aggressive outsourcing plan that  now is stalled in a costly court battle with the city’s unions because of the restrictions of state law.

The proposed charter also would restrict the collection of union dues among city workers and remove general wage protections on projects, called “prevailing wage,” that council majority members and building industry supporters say would save taxpayers millions on construction projects.

The new charter also would require voter approval before council members could increase any pension benefits for city workers.

On Tuesday, council members also authorized the full text of the charter and a neutral explanation by the city attorney to be included with sample ballots. Many in the audience, however, questioned whether the city attorney can be unbiased in such a politicized environment.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece cast the lone no vote against the council majority of Mayor Eric Bever and Councilmen Jim Righeimer, Steve Mensinger.

As has been the case throughout much of the council majority’s term, public testimony at Tuesday night’s council session ran two-to-one against the charter initiative and the council majority.

Critics call the proposal the “Righeimer Charter,” after the intellectual leader of the council majority, who is known in local government circles as one of the state’s most antiunion Republican leaders.

Righeimer and Mensinger have become the most vocal critics of the city’s labor groups. They criticize employee salaries and benefits as the most destructive force in local government and the reason Costa Mesa spent more than $35 million in reserves before the councilmen were elected in 2010.

Since being elected, the council majority has celebrated two consecutive balanced budgets hike spending on local infrastructure without tapping reserves.

Council critics say the majority also has spent more than $1 million in legal costs, consultants and public relations in their bid to portray the city budget and bureaucracy as broken.

Those longstanding divisions were on full display Tuesday night throughout the charter debate.

Retired city executive Perry Valentine criticized the council majority’s “takeover style of government,” saying they had not engaged the community in developing a broadly based charter and instead have pursued an ideological agenda.

“It’s about trust, that’s what’s lacking here in Costa Mesa, not the option to overrule Sacramento,” Valentine said. “Residents don’t want an open-ended charter, because they don’t trust the city council.”

John Stevens, a local attorney running for City Council, warned the council majority that their plans could backfire, pointing to a recent Wall Street Journal article noting that many cities in California that are facing fiscal emergencies — like Bell, San Bernardino and Stockton — are charter cities.

“The fallacy is that charter cities are in some way more fiscally sound that general law cities. Well, the empirical data does not bear that out,” Stevens said.

Mensinger took issue with Stevens’ characterization, saying the one central theme in places like Bell, San Bernardino and Stockton were close relationships between elected officials and unions.

“What it [the charter] really does is give the people the last word on whether or not we change benefits [for employees],” Mensinger said.

Tustin resident Mark Bauer, who heads Bergelectric in Costa Mesa, attended the council meeting to support the council majority, saying the charter would restore local control.

“Government closest to the people governs the best,” Bauer said, echoing the sentiments of a half dozen Young Republicans leaders who came to the meeting to lend support.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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