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Community Commentary: This City Council makes a charter risky

November 18, 2011|By Charles Mooney

I read with interest the Nov. 3 Daily Pilot article by Joseph Serna "Charter city request proposed."

It was unsettling to learn that the stated reason Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer wanted to pursue a city charter, rather than remaining a general law city (meaning following state law), was to disengage the city from a lawsuit brought by the Orange County Employees Assn. over outsourcing, which was preceded by sending layoff notices to about half of the Costa Mesa city employees.

I originally doubted that this significant change would have been pursued if it weren't for the issue with OCEA. However, after reading Forum letters and reading about city charters on the League of California Cities (LCC) website, I began to think that there might be other reasons. I became concerned why Righeimer and the City Council majority might want to become a charter city.

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For starters, even though the charter could be written by an elected commission, or written by the council and then approved by the voters, this could tempt this council to manipulate the control of the checks and balances of city government. According to the LCC website, a city charter can grant to charter cities supremacy over "municipal affairs."

However, because the California Constitution does not define the term "municipal affair," the courts decide what a "municipal affair" is on a case by case basis.

The concept of "municipal affairs" changes over time as local issues become statewide concerns. This could result in more legal fees for Costa Mesa if city employee layoffs, outsourcing or union pensions are successfully argued to be statewide concerns.

There are, however, some areas that the courts have consistently classified as municipal affairs, including municipal election matters, procedures for initiative, referendum and recall, procedures for adopting ordinances, compensation of city officers and employees, and last but not least, processes associated with city contracts.

A city charter is like a constitution for the city, and it can only be adopted, amended or repealed by a majority of city voters. However, will people actually read and be able to understand a city charter before voting on it? The primary advantage of a charter is that it allows greater authority for a city's governance — i.e., greater Costa Mesa City Council authority — than that provided by a general law city.

Considering the handling of the Costa Mesa's city employee layoffs, the certainty that they would dissolve the dispute with OCEA and the risk, among many possible risks, that they would construct the city charter in a manner that would make their recall harder or their reelection easier, do we really want to give more power to this council for deciding the issues mentioned above?

I know that I don't.

CHARLES MOONEY is a Costa Mesa resident.

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