Costa Mesa's proposed charter would give city officials too much power, residents said at recent neighborhood meeting.
"The charter won't immediately change anything, but it would create a situation where this council, or a future council, could remove some protections that we currently have under state law," said Perry Valantine, treasurer for Costa Mesans for Responsible Government.
Valantine and five other council critics made up the panel at the Neighborhood Community Center on Thursday night for what organizers hope will be the first of several city charter informational meetings ahead of an expected June 5 vote.
"This will be the biggest change in the city's history," said Robin Leffler, president of the grass-roots organization.
For the last year, Leffler and other organization members have opposed the council's plans at every turn. Neighbors coalesced as the council approved grounding the city's police helicopter program, outsourcing more than 40% of city services, reducing the police force and finally creating the city's own charter, or civic constitution, to run things.
"When you concentrate power in [the hands of] a few people, you run risks," said panelist Eleanor Egan.
Over two hours, more than 150 people listened as Egan, Valantine and others argued that the charter was written hastily, is without enough resident input and gives the council too much autonomy.
A charter would pull the city out from under California's constitution and give the local government control over local affairs like zoning, contracts and elections.
The panel had two main criticisms.
One was that they view the language in the charter as too vague. An audience member pointed out that there's no penalty listed for violating any part of the charter, and another panelist noted that it doesn't lean on the state's laws for unspecified powers.
The other complaint was about what the charter could do under the wrong leadership. Critics said that while the current draft relies on state law for running elections and local laws for zoning, the council would have the power to change that.
Skeptics often bring up the city of Bell as an example of a city with a charter gone wrong.
"They just weren't paying attention," Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said of Bell.
Costa Mesa's proposed charter caps council pay to the state guidelines. But critics argue that could always be changed.
"I don't think it's an issue right now, but we don't know what will happen in the future," said former Mayor Sandy Genis, a Costa Mesans for Responsible Government member.
The organization didn't hide its anti-charter agenda during the meeting, and some audience members had their reservations reinforced.
"I knew I didn't want to vote for it going in, and I really don't want to vote for it coming out," said resident Terri Fuqua.
Some charter supporters didn't walk out of the meeting with changed opinions, either.
"I think they were slanted, but fair," said Righeimer, who attended with council members Wendy Leece, a charter opponent, and Steve Mensinger, a supporter. "[But] to sit there and say in the city of Costa Mesa, somehow a council is going to change something in the dark of night, that no one is going to understand and it'll all be secret, is a bit disingenuous."