Draft charter limits wage increases [corrected]

COSTA MESA — The City Council could not give itself a raise or increase city workers' benefits without voter approval, according to a draft city charter introduced Tuesday.

An earlier version incorrectly said putting the charter on the June ballot would be cheaper than putting it on the November ballot.

The city employee associations would also be prohibited from spending union dues on political contributions in council races.

According to the proposed charter, which Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer assembled, the groups would have to set up a separate account that workers could pay into to fund political activities, rather than have dues used for political purposes taken out of their checks.

The nearly eight-page document — a cut-and-paste patchwork of other cities' charters — takes aim at city employee groups' bargaining and political power while also adding language to rein in costs on public-works projects.

"The public will be able to see, contract by contract by contract, the millions of dollars they can save," Righeimer said at Tuesday's meeting, which was the public's first opportunity to poke and prod the proposed charter. "I think that's going to make a massive difference over time."

A charter would give the city more local control over areas like public-works contracts and outsourcing city services. Costa Mesa would only rely on Sacramento's laws for nonlocal affairs, such as regulations that require open meetings and access to public documents. Many area cities, including Newport Beach, are governed by charters.

Longtime city employees and residents say discussions about a city charter have circulated over the years, but never led anywhere.

But amid Costa Mesa being embroiled in a lawsuit with its own employees — and a court-ordered injunction tying the city's hands from outsourcing jobs to the private sector and lowering long-term pension costs — Righeimer revived the charter idea.

"It's time to take the training wheels off … I have no doubt that the voters are going to vote for something like this," he said. "[But] if the citizens don't want to do it, then the citizens won't move forward with it."

The regular audience members, like they generally do with the current council makeup, expressed pointed skepticism.

"Here's a ready-made charter cherry-picked by one man," said resident Tamar Goldman.

Council watchers Tom and Eleanor Egan said the council hasn't listened to the public since it voted to outsource city jobs in March; they asked why should they expect the council to listen now.

"You guys are running the store," Tom Egan said.

Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy, an ally of the council majority, praised the council's actions, as did John Hill, a Costa Mesa resident since 1970.

The charter is a work in progress, with several public meetings scheduled until the state primaries in June. Costa Mesa could pay $97,500 to $123,500 to get the charter on the June ballot, which would be $19,000 to $26,000 more than the $78,500 to $97,500 it would cost to put it on the November general election ballot.

Like many communities that have switched from being a general law to a charter city, this council is opting to write the document and have residents vote on it. The other option, according to the League of California Cities, is to have a 15-member committee of residents create a charter — a path favored by some council critics.

But that approach, Righeimer said, would push back the date voters could approve it, and further delay the city's ability to outsource its services.

Organized labor's presence at the meeting foreshadowed the politicking to come. Representatives came from unions in both Orange and Los Angeles counties.

"It seems like the council is looking for an expanded fight with labor," said Patrick Kelly, secretary treasurer for the Teamsters Local 952 union. "And you know what? That's what they're going to get.

"You have some people who have a political agenda and ideology that they're working to support, and they're using the financial crisis to further their political goals. I think it's pretty clear."

Operating under a charter would allow the city to sign public-works contracts that pay workers below prevailing wages, or the average pay a person would make in a specific profession and is set by the state and federal government, respectively. In California, general law cities and those that use state or federal funds are required to pay prevailing wages, which is the general pay rate for work done in a specific area, such as welding or carpentry.

A charter city doesn't have to worry about that unless it's using nonlocal funding.

"You take the lowest possible, responsible bidder," said Jerome Kerr, an Oceanside councilman who praised the charter city idea. "These aren't fly-by-night operations. They've done these jobs — quality of work is the same."

He estimated a city can save at least 10% on public-works contracts when it doesn't have to worry about prevailing-wage laws.

"Who in this community is against pension reform? Who is against local control?" Kerr asked. "If you really look at it, what the charter does for you, most people will vote for it."

The state Supreme Court is considering a case from the city of Vista on whether charter cities have to pay prevailing wages.

The public can make suggestions on changes to Costa Mesa's proposed charter in the next few months. City officials said they're building a webpage dedicated to the issue.

The first town-hall meeting on the charter will be at 7 p.m. Jan. 5 at an as-yet-undetermined location.

Future discussions are scheduled for the council's Jan. 10 and Feb. 14 meetings, with a possible town hall meeting scheduled for Jan. 24 or 31. The council could approve a final charter to go on the June ballot on March 6 at the earliest.


Twitter: @JosephSerna

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