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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Charter chatter 

Costa Mesa is presently a “General Law City,” subject to a lot of control through the State legislature. However, her City Council seems likely to revisit the issue of a Charter soon.  Charters are essentially just City Constitutions.

Peddling influence efficiently

Lobbyists love General Law Cities because their efforts can be concentrated in Sacramento. The legislation they sponsor (or buy) there applies to all General Law Cities in the State.

The City’s governing body, the City Council, is concerned with its residents and the welfare of its city, but what it can change is limited in a General Law city. One lobbyist can easily cause more change to life in the city than the whole City Council can.

Charter City governs itself

In a Charter City, the other type allowed under California law, the overall state laws, such as driving and street and integrity statutes, are still enforced. However, the various measures that are applied, willy-nilly, by Sacramento to all General Law cities don’t affect Charter Cities.
Let’s look at a few specifics. In a Charter City, as in a General Law City, meetings must be publicly announced, and elections conducted according to standard rules. That’s state law, and it applies in both types of cities.

Ordinances still enforced 

In both types of cities, codes of conduct, procedures for purchasing, and operational rules are written into the city codes (or books of laws and procedures). So, for example, if a city ordinance specifies an audit by outside auditors every three years, that law is enforced, whether it’s a Charter or a General Law city.

The protections of State Law apply in both types of city. Charter Cities have no bogeymen waiting to issue “no bid contracts” as was asserted during the last election. Council members can’t affect contract awards in either type of city without facing prison sentences, per State law.

How it works 

For example, the Council can specify that purchases over $50,000 must follow a specific formal procedure labeled “bidding.” This legally-defined procedure involves publishing the RFP (Request for Proposal) for a certain period of time, advertising the purchase in a specific manner, developing specifications through which bidders prove that they meet requirements (such as having equipment to do the job, and financial ability to perform a job of that size). This state law is enforced in both Charter and General Law cities.

Let’s use the example of the purchase of paint and painting equipment. If it’s expected to cost over $50K, the formal procedure is followed, which is expensive and time consuming. It might provide net savings to the city. The City Council sets the levels at which formal bids are required.

City procedure by city staff

If the supplies are expected to cost less than the trigger amount, the city follows its internal procedures. For example, the city may allow department managers to make purchases up to $10K by just placing an order with an existing provider; they order from a catalog. Most managers call providers to find the best price and delivery, and then sign the order. City procedures specify how the departments document their purchases.

If the supplies are likely to cost more than $10K but less than $50K  internal rules might require that the City Manager get “bids” or cost proposals from three suppliers. The City Manager issues the order based upon what the suppliers propose in their replies. Documentation is specified in city procedures.

Council buys nothing, staff does

The City Council oversees the operations, and may audit to check that city procedures are being followed. But it can’t “give contracts to its friends,” as the frenzied commenters warned, whether the city is a Contract City or a General Law City.

Making new laws 

What about changing the city ordinances? That’s the City Council’s job. And remember from earlier discussions, Costa Mesa has a representative government. All of the residents don’t vote for an ordinance, only the Council Members do. And, the majority makes the decision.

So, although the screaming nay-sayers worked themselves into lathers warning that “only three votes determines the law under the (proposed) Charter,” that’s how it’s supposed to work. And, majority rules in both City Contract or General Law cities.

In either type of city, an ordinance must survive two readings and a thirty-day wait before it becomes law. It is subject to referendum during that time whether in a Charter or a General Law city.

Crooks, unsustainable wage guarantees still possible

Charters can be written to cause disasters of
course, as in Stockton. And crooks can slip thievery in where transparency is weak, as in Bell. But adopting a charter doesn't make a city subject to graft and corruption; the charter is usually a benefit to the city. And, Costa Mesa’s government transparency wins awards.

Which is best 

The only advantage to being a General Law City accrues if that city is unable to stand on its own. Costa Mesa is certainly self-sufficient in most resources. We’re even independent of the State for our water!

So what’s the advantage enjoyed by a Charter City?

According to the California League of Cities,

The ability to govern in the general law cities is “bound” by state law “regardless of whether the subject concerns a municipal affair.” On the other hand charter cities have “supreme authority” over municipal affairs under their constitutions – the charters.

We've seen the State suddenly raze the redevelopment agencies, raid the cities’ funds, and “re-direct” vehicle license fees that were constitutionally guaranteed to the city. The residents, and especially the funds, of Costa Mesa are becoming fodder for the bigger fish. Sacramento couldn't do these things to us if we were a Charter city – at least not so easily and directly.

There's more than this to consider

Maybe a Charter would be a good thing for Costa Mesa. 

What’s in a charter?  

We’ll look into that in a future post. It involves legal matters, so there’s a lot of nit-picking and defining, and numbering and . . . but we’ll deal with that next time.

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