Righeimer: Costa Mesa should become a charter city

It's time for Costa Mesa to become "a grown-up city," Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said.

Righeimer suggested at Tuesday's City Council meeting that Costa Mesa adopt its own charter, or set of laws, rather than rely on general state law for guidance

"In the end, what the city needs to do is be able to have control of its own destiny," the first-year councilman said. "Local control, not have every time Sacramento decides to change a law, have it affect our city."

Righeimer's comments came after he asked City Attorney Tom Duarte at Tuesday's meeting to come back with a written report on how to get a charter city referendum on the June 5 primary election ballot. Voter approval would be required to restructure the city.

Costa Mesa is a general law city, meaning it is bound by the state's general laws and constitution. Becoming a charter city would give city leaders greater control over public works contracts, zoning, outsourcing city services and other areas of the law.

A representative for the Costa Mesa's employee association said she saw the councilman's suggestion as a way to reduce the city workforce.

"This is just another example of how these politicians will ignore the rules to advance their own political agenda," said Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn. (OCEA). "A judge already told them they can't do something, so instead of following the law, they try to change the laws."

When Righeimer introduced the charter idea, he emphasized that the switch would immediately untangle the city from a lawsuit filed by city employees earlier this year.

The foundation of the employees' lawsuit against Costa Mesa is that certain public services cannot be replaced by private businesses because Costa Mesa is a general law city, bound by state laws that prohibit it.

During the summer, a judge ordered an injunction against Costa Mesa that prohibits the city from replacing municipal employees with private-sector workers until the suit is resolved in court. That won't happen until April, at the earliest.

"This process is going to go to appeals and appeals," Righeimer said at the council meeting. "If we could just cut it off by becoming a charter city, a grown-up city like the rest of the cities around us, we wouldn't have to go hat-in-hand to a judge who is telling us we can't do what every other city in the state can do."

Newport Beach is a charter city, as are many of the municipalities in Orange County, such as Irvine and Huntington Beach.

Of the more than 470 cities in the state, at least 120 of them operate under a city charter, according to the California League of Cities.

The council's outsourcing plan has driven a wedge between public employees and a majority of the council. Employees accused the council of pushing through a political agenda, while the council majority argues they are trying to reduce growing pension costs.

Rumors swirled earlier this year of a potential recall against Righeimer, the mayor and others, but it never came to fruition.

The OCEA led an anti-outsourcing campaign over the summer.

"I think it's highly unlikely that the residents of Costa Mesa would vote to abandon protections of the state and turn over almost entire control to a City Council that has already done so much damage to the city," Muir said. "Taking away even more of the public's control over regulating their city government only exposes residents to even more of this behavior."

To adopt its own charter, Costa Mesa voters would either elect a charter commission to draft a charter that would be voted on later, or have the council create the charter. Voters would then OK it.

"Newport outsourced their street sweeping," Righeimer said. "They're a charter city. They just did it. There was no question about outsourcing. I think it's about local control.

"Once you're a grown-up city, we've been around, we know how to operate. You take the training wheels off."


Twitter: @JosephSerna

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