Deja vu in new charter debate

During an often-tense public hearing Tuesday night, one reminiscent of the contentious 2012 election season that included its own charter debate, the battle lines for and against another proposed charter for Costa Mesa materialized.

On one end were supporters of the constitution-like document, contending that it will save taxpayers millions, institute more-reliable home rule than what Sacramento provides and, by and large, keep many good city policies intact.

"It's not rocket science," said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger. "It's local control."

Others cried foul on the renewed attempt to bring a charter before voters, saying the 60% "no" vote in 2012 should have demonstrated the will of the people.

"I still haven't been told what we need a charter for, with specific answers and specific numbers," said former Councilman Jay Humphrey, who's running for the dais in November.

Opponents argued that the charter is a "power grab" by the Mayor Jim Righeimer-led council majority, created by a biased committee of Righeimer allies.

Councilman Gary Monahan, who supported the 2012 charter initiative, Measure V, took strong exception to the "power grab" allegation. He said neither charter provides additional authority for a three-person council majority than what's already been in place since the city's inception.

"If you don't like the people up here, vote them out in November," Monahan said. "But this charter does not give any more power to anybody."

He also said the charter effort shows no similarities to the wrongdoings in Bell, which included the city manager and council members being highly overpaid. Comparisons between Costa Mesa and Bell are just "political hyperbole," Monahan said.

One member of the committee and a council candidate this November, Harold Weitzberg, said he didn't favor what the group came up with. On Tuesday, he again questioned the need for it in the first place.

Much of the 2014 charter repeats what Costa Mesa already has in place, he said.

"The sum and substance is that it does not change anything significant in the way we govern our city," Weitzberg said.

Resident Cindy Brenneman agreed, adding, "What is it that this magic charter will allow you do that we can't already do now?"

Weitzberg and others also questioned the charter's stance on prevailing wages — the rates set by unions and other parties for a particular job. As is, the document wouldn't require Costa Mesa to pay prevailing wages on public-works projects funded solely with local dollars, though projects receiving state or federal funding would still be subject to the wage rates.

Prevailing wage has been subject to recent legal wrangling and is a hot-button item for organized labor, which supports it on the grounds that it ensures excellent work and middle-class earnings.

Resident Terry Koken said Costa Mesa is "playing with dynamite when you're playing with the prevailing wage business."

Councilwoman Wendy Leece said the wage will help guarantee high standards for all public-works projects.

"You have less of a liability and you have less of a risk by going with that plan," she said.

Righeimer said the city shouldn't be paying workers "$42 an hour to hold a stop sign." Furthermore, he said, prevailing wage doesn't necessary equate to better results.

The charter will help with money-saving outsourcing efforts, like street sweeping and parks maintenance, Righeimer contended. If privatized street-sweeping were done today, he added, it would save taxpayers $3 million over five years and not lead to the layoffs of any city employees.

Charter Committee member Ron Amburgey said some people's hatred for the council is "kind of clouding their judgment." The charter is about local control, just like Newport Beach, Irvine and Huntington Beach have with their respective charters, he said.

"I just wanted to say, 'Power to the people,'" Amburgey said. "We remember that back in the '60s, right? The same people who were for it then are against it now."

After Amburgey was jeered by some audience members for his pro-charter view — the majority of Tuesday's attendees said they were against the charter — Monahan asked for everyone to show respect for all sides of the debate. Amburgey was also told several times to address the council, not the audience, during his remarks.

About an hour into the meeting, after Righeimer was accused of intimidating those who disagree with him, he called for a 10-minute recess because of disruptive clapping.

Resident Perry Valantine was critical of the city's mailers about Measure V, which he called "more campaign than informational." Valantine and others said the city's mailers this time should be as unbiased as possible.

Former council candidate Chris McEvoy said the charter should include a policy on not allowing cell phones on the dais. The devices distract council members during meetings, he contended.

Monahan responded that the group needs its phones in case of family or business emergencies, which can happen during council sessions.

Tuesday's hearing was the first of two scheduled before the council votes to put the document on November's ballot.

City staff will amend the document before the second hearing, scheduled for June 3.

A 13-member citizens committee, after 10 months of work and debate, gave its approval in March of the document, which brought it forward to the council.

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