Charter panel tackles public works

A top city official urged the Costa Mesa Charter Committee on Wednesday to maintain the public-works contract system as is because of what he termed its transparency and effectiveness.

The 13-member panel charged with drafting a charter heard an hourlong presentation from Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz, who went into detail about how public-works projects — which can include work done on streets, parks, buildings and sewers — are initiated, reviewed, awarded and managed.

The discussion was another incremental step toward drafting a city charter, which would be subject to voter approval.

During its July meeting, the committee had asked Munoz to weigh in on Costa Mesa's public-works contracting setup, which, in the fiscal year 2012-13 adopted budget, amounted to nearly $21 million worth of projects.

"The system is working very, very well," Munoz said in his summation. "It assures the city of transparency, it allows for us to be flexible, it gets us to award a $20-million capital improvement program within a year."

He told the committee, "Whatever you're going to do with the charter, use extreme care. Do not change it. You want to make it so that we're allowed the flexibility to make it tighter. Go ahead and do that. But the system right now is working."

Calling the system "airtight," he said it helps city staff process grants, meet deadlines and comply with various federal or state contracting requirements.

Since 2009, Costa Mesa has largely adhered to the state's Uniform Public Construction Cost Accounting Act.

It stipulates that city employees can perform projects valued at less than $45,000 if the price is less than it would be with an outside company. For projects less than $175,000, city staff or the city chief executive can authorize the contract.

Contracts worth more than $175,000 require council approval and a formal bidding process, which includes publishing a notice in trade journals or a newspaper.

Munoz, in addressing general allegations of "no-bid contracts," said the city requires at least three bids for public-works projects worth more than $1,000.

"Other cities around may be issuing these contracts without any bids," Munoz said. "Why? Because they're allowed. We chose not to."

All but four members, in a vote, said the system needs some small tweaks to increase transparency.

Ron Amburgey, Mary Ann O'Connell, Harold Weitzberg and William Fancher said the process is adequate as is.

"I liked 95% of it," Tom Graham said. "The only 5% is doing something to help public awareness."

Hank Panian, a former Mesa Water District board member, cited the success of the district's newsletter about various projects.

O'Connell countered that outreach isn't "a charter issue" but rather a marketing issue that would cost the city money.

"I think when people have a true interest, they can find the information," she said.

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Prevailing wage

The committee was scheduled to discuss prevailing wages, a contentious subject in an earlier failed charter attempt — known as Measure V on the November ballot.

That charter would have exempted Costa Mesa from paying prevailing wages on municipal projects solely funded by city money.

Unions and other parties determine the prevailing wage, but while critics contend that the wage drives up the cost of work, supporters say it promotes quality work and middle-class earnings.

A January 2012 document provided during the three-hour Charter Committee meeting said the city would have saved between 2.4% and 15.4% if it didn't have to pay the higher prevailing wage on five recent projects that were funded locally.

A two-page letter from Scott Littlehale of Sacramento-based Smart Cities Prevail, a nonprofit group that advocates for prevailing wages, criticized the city memo's conclusions.

Among Littlehale's qualms were that city officials made "unsubstantiated" cost claims on "completely dissimilar types of projects."

"This sort of leap is like comparing apples and watermelons," he wrote.

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Future meeting

The Charter Committee next meets at 6 p.m. Aug. 28. Topics will include "openness" on contracting procedures and suggested language for contract transparency, which will be provided by the committee members.

The committee may also choose a chair and vice chair to supplement the two paid, independent facilitators — Kirk Bauermeister and Mike Decker — who help lead the group.

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