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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

And even more Charter Chatter

Adopting a charter does not change the way a city operates. A charter provides a framework for making City-specific decisions regarding municipal affairs. Changes to existing ordinances and regulations are made by the City Council, as always. An ordinance still has two hearings, a month apart, and offers an opportunity for citizens to express their concern. And, citizens can still overrule an ordinance by referendum.

And, the charter’s provisions must conform to the State constitution. There is no possibility that the Charter could overrule State or Federal law

Balance rights and efficiency

A charter should:

Strike a balance between the rights of the citizens and the ability of the city to function without voter approval. For instance, while it may be wise to require that city government win approval of the voters for a tax increase; it may unnecessarily handicap city government if they are required to ask for a vote of the people in order to give raises to city employees. It is important to carefully balance the scales between citizen oversight and efficient governance.

Purchasing works the same

Purchasing regulations and ordinances continue to govern how we spend the City’s money, in accordance with State and Federal law. “No bid contracts” in the sense used by the charter critics during the last election don’t exist, and can’t exist. All purchases are made through the competitive systems developed by the City staff, and are done by the City staff. Council members allow the bills for the purchased products and services to be paid.

“No bid contracts,” are actually a purchasing classification. Purchases above a “trigger point” follow a procedure outlined in state law for formally advertising the intended purchase and asking for bids. Bidders must qualify under demanding State law and City regulations. No bid contracts follow the regular city procedures. Some purchases are just phoned in by City staffers on an open contract, such as for oil, paint, or pencils. Others require negotiation for best price and service; these negotiations are conducted according to City procedures by City staff.

So, charter or not, there’s no way for a City council, or any of its members, to influence the award of a contract. Under General Law, cities use a State-mandated trigger for the formal bidding process. Under a charter, the Council may be able to specify the dollar value at which formal bidding begins. That trigger point only applies to purchases made for strictly City functions, and with strictly City money.

Governs only municipal affairs

In other words, a charter is written to govern only “municipal affairs.” These may include: construction and maintenance contracting, land use, City finances, City government structure, franchise fees with some utilities, negotiating with employee organizations, control over municipal elections, and some land use and zoning regulations.

So, for example, if we want to build a new police station with State and Federal funds, we have to follow state and federal laws and guidelines. “You pay the bills, you make the rules.” But if we decide to build a precinct station in South Coast plaza using City funds, under a charter we could build it as we saw fit, as long as it conformed to our City ordinances and the state and federal laws about safe construction standards.

Defers to state law sometimes 

In many cases a charter will specify “by state law” for any area that is changing a lot and would need updating, or that doesn't matter much to the specific city. For example, Costa Mesa is not likely to write ordinances about zoning for large industry, so we’d leave that to “applicable state law.”

Once it has been specified in the adopted charter, though, a full election process must be used to change it. So, if the clause read “state law” and we wanted to zone an area for a steel-manufacturing plant, we’d need a majority vote from the citizens.

If State rules don't help Costa Mesa

If Sacramento decrees that all cities hire a “Sign Painting monitor” Costa Mesa would need one as a General Law city. We probably wouldn't need one if we had a properly-written charter.

So, a charter could regulate construction and maintenance contracting for any building done only for Costa Mesa and using only Costa Mesa’s funds. All governance concerning matters beyond municipal affairs is controlled by State law.

Why should we care?

If the charter will only govern municipal affairs, what’s the point?

Right now, if the state needs money, it can “borrow” Costa Mesa’s funds as it wants. Sacramento has done this and will continue to do this. And the State can require Costa Mesa to follow rules that make no sense for Costa Mesa. In a well-written charter, as the City of Murrieta found, “…a knowledgeable, involved electorate . . . (can) both propel and constrain the direction of its own city.”

Could lead to evil if we're not careful

But, a charter can also be written to give council members a lot of money. One word; Bell. 

We have two defenses against Bell-like corruption here; a well-written charter, and citizens who care. Very few Bell citizens bothered to vote when Bell’s Committeemen were stealing. Costa Mesans care, and we have COIN (Civic Openness In Negotiations), so that path isn't likely here, regardless of who is on the City Council.

A charter is a tool to help govern the City and shield it from raids and rules by Sacramento. How well the tool works will depend on how well the charter is written.

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