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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Big Risk?

I overheard a conversation that prompted this blog. Granted, three people talking in a grocery store don’t constitute a valid survey, nor even suggest a general belief. But the conversation is indicative of some misunderstanding related to two of our frequent subjects: propaganda and the Charter.

We are seeing a lot of Charter criticism focused on “what it doesn't say,” and “gives the Council enormous new powers that they can use to waste Costa Mesa's money while benefiting themselves or their friends.” How likely is this?

Actually, no

Right now, City operations are regulated by a little Federal law, a great deal of State law, and a medium-sized serving of Costa Mesa law, also called ordinances. Our attorneys and police enforce these laws, and the City staff use documented procedures to insure that the City complies with the laws.

Some State laws apply to our City's operations only because we are organized as a General Law city. These laws, as they pertain to strictly Costa Mesa money and property, are opened to modification by the City Council by the Charter.

Under the Charter

If changes are specifically mentioned in the Charterthen they can be changed in the future only by ballot. If they are listed as options that the Council can modify, then ordinances can be written, following the same procedures and safeguards we use now, to change them. If changes are not specifically listed, then current laws apply and are followed. Same “checks and balances,” same safeguards, same laws, same procedures.

Changes that will require approval by the voters include not allowing payroll deductions for donations to a union's or corporation's political fund. In the future, under the Charter, that can be changed only by the voters, like any changes to City Council and employee wages – or benefits.

Changes that can be made by ordinance include the dollar level at which the formal bidding process is initiated. Any such ordinance has two hearings and a thirty-day period that allows for referendum. No change.

Like we do it now

The City Council will enact all ordinances exactly as they do now, including the two hearings and the thirty-day delay before the ordinances take effect. The City CEO, through his managers, will develop procedures to implement the laws, exactly as he does now.

The Charter does NOT abolish the body of Costa Mesa Ordinances; any that are not specifically mentioned as changed continue in effect as laws that will continue to be enforced.

Jail time for contracts to friends

Under the Charter, just as under General Law, the City Council members are prohibited, with criminal penalties in some cases, from interfering with or influencing this process. They cannot order an employee or manager to do or not do anything. They cannot “give a contract to a friend without needing a bid" – they can't even award a contract. They can only approve or not approve a contract negotiated by the City staff.

For example. Let's say that signs and banners commemorating Veterans may be hung along Fairview Avenue, per an ordinance. Permission to hang a specific banner rests with City staff, under the direction of the CEO. Council members cannot specify a particular veteran's banner be displayed.

However, the City Council could resolve to declare a particular veteran a “Hero from Costa Mesa,” and send a copy of the resolution to the veteran's Costa Mesa family. This is not changed by the Charter; the ordinances and resolutions procedures and safeguards all remain the same.

Monster under the bed

CM4RG lists the “danger” of increased power to the City Council that would enable “No-Bid Contracts,” whatever they take that to mean, because of a phrase in the Charter that allows the Council to make changes by ordinance or resolution.

Taken out of context, it does indeed say that the Council can make changes by ordinance or resolution – but this phrase actually refers to changing the time and place of the Council meeting! The whole article is about setting City Council meetings, but a phrase taken out of context is used to try to prove perfidy or at least the potential for it in contracting and purchasing!

Nothing could be farther from the truth – that is a gigantic “misstatement” designed to arouse fear and influence opinion and behavior by manipulating emotions. It's trying to frighten voters to vote (against the Charter). That's propaganda, and in fact it could be an icon for the propaganda techniques of “fear mongering, misquoting” and “taking out of context.”

Not much risk in this Charter  

When the argument appeals to fears and prejudices (politicians want more money and power, for example), it's worth a detailed look. The details in this case show that the criticism is strictly propaganda “designed to arouse emotional responses that support the propagandist's interest.”

More on the criticisms of the Charter and what the Charter actually says in a future blog.

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