Costa Mesa charter heads to June ballot

Costa Mesa residents will vote June 5 on whether to adopt a city charter, a proposal that has yielded mixed responses.

"We've got to get the tools here to get ourselves back on track, and that's all this charter does," Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said after the vote Tuesday night. "I'm doing what I truly believe is best for the citizens of Costa Mesa."

Supporters say a charter would provide more local control over governance, while detractors view it as an effort to stop a lawsuit filed by city workers who want to prevent outsourcing of their jobs.

After hosting two state-mandated charter meetings where the community can suggest changes to the document — essentially a city constitution — the council majority voted 4 to 1 to put the initiative on the California primary ballot.

Opponents called for it to be put on the November ballot, a less costly alternative that would give the public more time to learn about and play a greater role in crafting the document that, in many cases, would supersede the general laws found in the state Constitution.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece cast the lone dissenting vote.

"It just hasn't been vetted that well," said Leece, who has voted no to the large-scale changes initiated by Righeimer and Councilman Steve Mensinger.

The two councilmen have led a charge started in 2011 that has seen the police helicopter program cut, fees for some services increased, workers laid off and their jobs on the way to being outsourced.

"The problem here is fear of change, fear of going into something new," Mayor Gary Monahan said of those opposing the charter. "All we're doing today is, if we go forward, is giving the residents of Costa Mesa an option to say if they want it or not. If you don't like it, vote no."

However, the men argue that the payoff has been a budget surplus for the first time in years and a boost in spending in city maintenance and improvements.

If voters approve switching to a charter city, a city-employee lawsuit alleging it's illegal for Costa Mesa — in its current general law form — to privatize specific services would become moot. A judge last year prohibited Costa Mesa from privatizing services until the lawsuit is resolved in April at the earliest.

The charter unlocks more outsourcing, which in turn would lighten future payroll costs and pension obligations weighing heavily on Costa Mesa's finances, proponents claim.

"We have a big financial problem," said Gene Hutchins, a Costa Mesa resident for more than 40 years. "The sooner we got on with this, the better."

Still, others maintained that the community won't have enough time to understand the implications before they're asked to vote.

"They have to vote on it before they know what the devil is in it," resident Joy Williams told the council. "And as we all know, the devil's in the details."

Most of the ways Costa Mesa does business won't change under a charter, City Attorney Tom Duarte said.

A majority of the city's laws still apply, but on municipal affairs there would be more local control.

For instance, the charter mandates that employee union dues cannot be spent on politics, and unions can only send out solicitations twice a year for political spending.

Costa Mesa would not have to pay so-called prevailing wages on city projects funded wholly by local money, and residents would have to approve increases to public safety worker benefits.

Costa Mesa last considered a charter 41 years ago, when residents decided against pursuing it.

The city will spend between $97,500 and $123,500 to put the charter on the June ballot, compared to $78,500 to $97,500 for the November ballot, according to official estimates.

The charter will be included in Costa Mesans' ballots alongside a non-partisan, 500-word analysis written by Duarte.

Council members and residents will also have an opportunity to submit arguments for and against the charter to also possibly be included.

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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