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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Charter Chat    

There’s so much Charter debate – and misinformation – spewing into Costa Mesa’s news and views now. Good? Bad? Both? Let’s take a look at the Charter, in a blog or three. Just what does it actually say?

What's it all about?

First, there are two types of city government under California State Law: Charter Cities and General Law Cities. Charter Cities write a lot of their own laws to fit their local needs. The advantage, of course, is that the laws fit their needs. The disadvantage is that a lot of updating is needed which takes time and money.

General Law Cities choose to be governed by a body of law enacted by the state legislature. So, the expense and effort devoted to keeping their legal codes current and orderly is minimal. They can enact local ordinances within certain limits.

For example

For example, if a mining city in the Northern California Mountains can persuade (and purchase) enough votes in Sacramento, general law can be amended to give mine workers special benefits. In that situation Costa Mesa would be required to search out and offer the benefits to any mine workers it can find in the city. However, if Costa Mesa were a Charter City, it wouldn’t be bound by that state law and wouldn’t have to search for miners.

Independent, but not always

There are a couple of exceptions to the independence, though:

Whenever money from the state or federal government is involved, the state or federal regulations apply. If they’re paying for it they’ll make the rules. (I know, it’s all our money but government folks don’t see it that way.)

And, if the project affects another city’s property, or federal property, directly, then the state or federal rules apply.

Blended benefits

The Charter proposal coming before the voters of Costa Mesa is a blend. For most things Costa Mesa we have existing ordinances, regulations, and procedures, all established in accordance with State law. Most of them will continue in force under the Charter. And, the State will keep the underlying laws up to date for us. In a few critical areas, citizens of Costa Mesa will take back control, though.

Not much really changes

Such matters as financial controls, like audits, and integrity enforcement are unchanged. For example, City Council Members are forbidden – with criminal penalties in some cases – from influencing purchasing contracts or directing city operations. So, a Council member cannot now “give a contract to his friends” or hire who he wants. And under the Charter? Exactly the same – same laws, same penalties.

But some list everything in their charter

For various reasons some cities have decided to make policy in their charter. This looks good to a casual glance, but, since a charter is much like a constitution, an update requires a long time and a lot of money.

For example, say a Charter specifies an audit by outside agencies every year (Costa Mesa’s audits are scheduled by our regulations in accordance with state law and good accounting practice). Then, say the Public Accounting standards change to every other year. The city with the audit frequency specified in the Charter would have to have hearings, draft the changes, have hearings on the draft (and if it were Costa Mesa, would have to listen to the nay-sayers at every Council meeting!), then put the change on the ballot, and let the community certify the change.

Much ado about very little

That’s silly. It would be like forcing a lawyer to go back to school every year to get familiar with current legal practices. (There wouldn’t be very many prestigious legal offices in Newport Beach any more.)

Or a lot

If we’re talking about a significant change, such as a major increase in workers’ pay or benefits, though, citizen control is great. The citizens who are governed and who pay the bills should have the final say.

How you make one

Now let’s address how charters are established.  Since a charter is a basis for governing a city, much like a constitution, it must be approved by the majority of the voters. It gets on the ballot in either of two ways; it’s proposed by the City Council, or, a specified percentage of the registered voters in the city agree it should be on the ballot. 

That’s true for all initiatives. Changes to the charter are made exactly the same way – by ballot as proposed by the City Council or the voters.

If the City Council wants citizen input, they often form a committee – this group is generally elected to study the charter and to write a draft. (In several California cities this process – electing, studying and writing – has been ongoing, sometimes for years. Delay and obfuscation are tactics of choice.)

Can do it our way -- like most other cities

Or, the Council can do as Costa Mesa’s Council did; draft a sample, call for citizen input, have the staff massage and clean up the text, review it, and put it on the ballot. Which way is best? 

That probably depends on whose ox is being gored. The nay-sayers and some thinking folks don’t like the way this one was prepared. Others don’t see much problem. Whether it was prepared in an ideal fashion or not, the intent is the same – take control of Costa Mesa governance and expenditures as quickly as possible.

Road blockers

Those who want to see lots of dissent for their own agendas will raise, “monster under the bed” fears. And, They'll chant “but not this charter,”or “not any charter made this way,” or “not Righeimer’s personal charter.”

No one will go on record as opposing control of Costa Mesa by our citizens, of course. They just propose, expose, and accuse to obscure their goal – no Charter (the groups giving us money oppose it!). So they say “Let’s study it more” – as if two years of study was inadequate. “Let’s get a citizens group (elected) to study it,” -- perhaps forever.  Is the purpose better-informed choices? No, the purpose is to delay; to delay the Charter as long as possible.


In a later blog: more about what the Charter actually says.

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