Community Commentary: Let’s not be hasty about charter city decision
Late Tuesday evening, at the tail end of the Costa Mesa City Council meeting, after most observers had left and local reporters had already filed their stories, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer dropped a bombshell (“Chart city request proposed,” Nov. 3).
Following a rant in which he whined about the city being forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending itself in a lawsuit filed by an employee association when, as he said, “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Righeimer instructed contract City Attorney Thomas Duarte to bring back to the council “in writing” the process that would be necessary to convert Costa Mesa from a general law city into a charter city.
First, Righeimer is wrong about not doing anything wrong. He, and the rest of the four-man council majority, rushed down the wrong path last spring when — in their haste to crush the employee associations and get rid of pension obligations — they announced their intent to outsource operations of 18 city functions and then issued more than 200 layoff notices to employees in direct contravention of their own council policy, 100-6. It was those acts, and their unwillingness to sit down with the individual bargaining units to discuss possible concessions and pension reform, that led directly to the lawsuit being filed.
You will recall that it was on the day the layoff notices were issued, St. Patrick’s Day, that a young employee, Huy Pham, leaped to his death from the City Hall roof and Mayor Gary Monahan dishonored himself and his office by choosing to remain at his pub, pulling beer taps on what he called “the biggest day of my life,” rather than go to City Hall to look after the welfare of the employees and the city.
When the council announced that it was going to issue requests for proposal (RFPs) for 18 city services without performing any kind of study to determine whether internal restructuring could result in cost savings, they ignored the advice of then-City Attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow, choosing to plow ahead down the wrong path, with the St. Patrick’s Day events becoming the exclamation point marking their inappropriate and illegal decisions.
The lawsuit has resulted in a temporary injunction levied against the city, forbidding it from proceeding with any outsourcing of city jobs to private industry, although it could, if it chooses, continue to consider shifting work to other public agencies. That lawsuit now has a trial date of April 9, and, barring the lifting of the injunction at a hearing later this month, it will remain in force until that time.
The city, in the meantime, has charged ahead with the issuance of the RFPs after having to recall the first few and restart the process because proper procedures were not followed. It is anticipated that all the RFPs will be issued by the next council meeting Nov. 15. Most, if not all, of the layoff notices have had their deadlines extended.
All this turmoil, and the frenetic pace at which the council majority has required the city staff to move to generate the RFPs, has contributed to the missteps the council has made. For some members of the council not used to following rules created by someone else, this has obviously been a frustrating experience.
So, now Righeimer has found a solution — convert Costa Mesa into a charter city and make up his own rules. Under that form of government, city ordinances take precedence over state laws, which must be music to his ears.
There is nothing wrong with being a charter city — all of our contiguous neighbors have that form of government. A quarter of all the cities in the state are charter cities.
The problems are: Who is going to make the rules? What are their motives? What’s the rush?
According to information from the League of California Cities, there are two ways to launch the process of converting to a charter city, both of which culminate in residents voting.
The first, which this impatient council majority will almost certainly reject, requires a confirming vote of the electorate that they do, in fact, want to become a charter city and, simultaneously, electing 15 residents as a charter commission. They will be charged with the creation of the city charter, which will then require a confirming vote by the electorate.
The second method is for the council to unilaterally decide to move forward with the process, create the charter itself and place that before the electorate. It seems to be a much faster process, but does not have the safeguards of a broad-based charter commission.
Righeimer has instructed Duarte to define a process that would get the question before the electorate in time for the June ballot. That deadline will force decisions that should be made calmly and with significant community input to be accelerated. As outlined above, this council has not demonstrated that it does well when making hasty decisions.
I am not suggesting that our leaders should not consider converting Costa Mesa to a charter city, but I am suggesting that this monumental decision — the second-most important decision to be made in the history of our city, following the decision to incorporate back in the mid-1950s — should not be rushed and that the earliest date such a decision should be placed before the voters would be a year from now, in the General Election.
Being a charter city provides the opportunity to craft ordinances specific to our circumstances instead following state law. As I said earlier, state law would be subordinate to our city ordinances in most instances. For that reason alone this process should be handled with careful deliberation. It also provides greater opportunity for corruption, as witnessed in the very recent past by the debacle that occurred in the city of Bell — a charter city. That event is another good reason for us to proceed cautiously.
The only reason for this council to rush this process was clearly stated in Righeimer’s preamble late Tuesday night — to somehow use the conversion to a charter city to circumvent the legal process and dispose of the lawsuit. His fit of petulance that night is the most recent demonstration of Righeimer’s willingness to launch initiatives that divide, rather than unite, residents to achieve his own personal political objectives. The impact of this decision will be felt by the residents of this city long after he has continued his life as a political gypsy and moved on. It should not be considered lightly or with undue haste.
If converting Costa Mesa to a charter city now is the right thing to do at this time in its evolution, then let’s consider it carefully. Let’s elect a broad-based charter commission to craft the charter with skill, patience and wisdom and not rush the process just to meet the personal political timetable of one individual.
GEOFF WEST is a Costa Mesa resident and author of A Bubbling Cauldron, a local blog.