Harlan: Process is king in city government

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Recently, one Orange County community was grappling with a complex and thorny subject that touched on all aspects of civic life: public safety, health, parks and recreation, transportation, employment, housing, social equity and governance.

To examine and address this wide-ranging topic, the City Council wisely decided to form a committee consisting of local experts, residents, businesses, civic organizations and other community representatives.

This committee was charged with the task of establishing realistic strategies and making recommendations that addressed the community’s needs. As well, the council directed the committee to develop its findings and recommendations within a reasonable period of time.


With these marching orders, the committee selected a chair person, established a schedule, identified goals and key issues, and doled out assignments to its members. It examined best practices in other cities and identified the unique circumstances that challenged its community. The city manager allocated resources, including city staff, to support this high-priority effort. The committee held public meetings, city staff prepared agendas and minutes, and the local media reported periodically on the committee’s progress.

After 12 months, the committee prepared a final report with a suite of recommendations and presented it to the council for review and consideration. Because the effort included representatives from a wide cross section of the community, the recommendations reflected different perspectives on how to best tackle this comprehensive challenge.

Despite these disparate viewpoints, the committee worked together to deliver reasonable and workable solutions. The result was a mixture of incentives, policies and regulatory actions, each of which the council approved.

More importantly, after months of working together, the committee was able to develop the trust, respect and cooperation among its members that would be necessary to help implement their plan. Creating this kind of consensus also led to increased investment by community members.

The community, of course, is Costa Mesa; and the committee was the Homeless Task Force.

Clearly, our council knows that dealing with major, citywide issues through a committee-based process — one that reflects the diversity of an 110,000-resident urban city — is effective.

It’s puzzling, then, that they would reject a similar process for something as important as a new city charter.

There are only three plausible explanations why the council majority failed to follow the same course for the proposed charter scheme.

First, the councilmen are afraid. Creating a committee, which would conduct its business in public, requires faith that a group of individuals can have a reasonable and civil discussion about such an important topic as governance. The Homeless Task Force proved such a committee can be useful and valuable. However, the councilmen feared that a committee’s proposed charter would not necessarily serve their own interests.

For example, would language prohibiting the city from deducting association dues from a city employee’s paycheck (for political purposes) have made it into a final document?

I doubt it. It’s one councilman’s pet issue, not a topic that has generated any genuine, widespread interest among the community at large. I would rather the topic be vetted by the community in a committee, and then see whether it rose to a level of importance that it should be included in our new constitution.

Second, the councilmen are driven by control and ego. The council majority has consistently chosen to disregard professional advice from its city attorneys, public safety officials, hired consultants and residents.

The prevailing attitude from the councilmen can be summed up simply: “We know better.” Given the option of creating a document by the council (one councilman, in this case) or a citizens committee, why would this council willingly relinquish absolute control of the process?

Third, the councilmen are just plain lazy. It’s easier to simply cut and paste from other documents and cobble together vague, generic language than to start from scratch and actually build something original and meaningful. The latter approach requires actually engaging and listening to the people you were elected to serve. It also requires patience, vigilance and significant research.

You wouldn’t prepare your doctoral thesis using only Wikipedia, would you?

Again, if using a committee is an acceptable and effective approach for addressing such an important issue like homelessness, then why wouldn’t the council employ one for the charter?

The bottom line is that process matters. If this charter is really about seizing “local control,” as the proponents like to claim, then how about putting the locals in control of the process? After all, this is the people’s charter, not the council’s.

Employing a charter committee would have instilled faith in the process. It also would have supported the council’s presumed efforts to make the city’s business more transparent. Transparency in government is useless, however, if you can’t participate in a meaningful way in the process. Conducting the bare minimum of public hearings required to put the charter on the ballot is insufficient.

As Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said at the July 10 council hearing on the charter, “It’s simply a matter of trust.”

What message is the council majority sending when it can’t even trust the community to help craft what is the city’s most important governing document?

I couldn’t agree more, Jim, ultimately it is about trust.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.