Supporters and opponents of a ballot proposal to make Costa Mesa a charter city shouted exuberant support for their positions Monday night during a continually interrupted debate where one fact clearly emerged: If voters in November reject the charter plan, Councilman Jim Righeimer will try again.

What happens, he was asked near the conclusion of the one-hour debate, if voters reject Measure V, the proposal to make Costa Mesa California’s 122nd charter city?

“We’ll go back to the community” with “another charter” plan, he replied.

Righeimer’s response highlighted an underlying issue in the charter campaign: The vote is also an unofficial referendum on Righeimer and the council majority’s goals for the city.

Righeimer’s debate opponent at the Feet to the Fire Forum in the city community center was Katrina Foley, a former city councilwoman and Newport-Mesa school board member.

Foley and Righeimer, each backed by cheering supporters who together numbered about 400 and filled the meeting room, continually interrupted and talked over each other. Reporters from four news organizations — Voice of OC, The Orange County Register, the Daily Pilot and the Newport Beach Independent — asked questions, but Righeimer and Foley kept the meeting moving on their own.

In general, Righeimer argued that voters should approve the charter plan because, he said, it would give the City Council the authority to outsource work and help heal the remainder of the city’s financial woes. The city faced a $9.5-million deficit when he took office two years ago, Righeimer said, but now has a balanced budget. But employee pension costs still are too high, and the city needs the flexibility to contract out city work, he said.

The City Council tried to do that in early 2011, soon after Righeimer was elected, through an unprecedented outsourcing plan. But the plan exploded into a controversy that attracted the attention of national news media. Lawsuits filed by public employee unions have kept the plan tied up in court for more than a year.

The council majority’s response to the lawsuits was to put a charter amendment on the ballot.

Foley argued the City Council rushed the charter proposal onto the ballot with too little involvement of city residents. In addition, she said, the charter plan leaves too many issues unknown, like how police services will be handled, and doesn’t require the city to pay prevailing wages, which can come close to union wages.

And she and Righeimer got into a “no-it-doesn’t, yes-it-does” dispute over whether the charter proposal would require city contracts to be competitively bid, an area often open to corruption.

At one point Righeimer complained that a week before he was elected, unions representing city employees and the old City Council extended union contracts for four years, meaning that for Righeimer’s entire first term, he has had no voice in renegotiating them.

California has two types of cities, general law and charter. Most of California’s more than 475 cities are general law, meaning they’re governed by state law in the way they run city business, including awarding contracts and paying employees.

But according to the League of California Cities, 121 are charter cities, including 10 in Orange County: Anaheim, Buena Park, Cypress, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, Placentia, Santa Ana and Seal Beach.

As long as they don’t violate the state constitution, charter cities may set their own laws for city elections, most land-use and zoning decisions, use of city tax dollars, and city contracts, including whether to require competitive bidding.

Charter cities, however, may not write their own traffic laws, regulate the school system or create their own laws in some other legal areas.

At the end of the forum, moderator Barbara Venezia of the Register asked Foley and Righeimer to briefly summarize their positions.

Foley said she feared passage of the charter provision would lead to “control by a coup of three people.”

Righeimer advised voters, “Don’t be afraid of the monster under the bed …”

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