Harlan: Proposed charter is no ‘constitution’


Sept. 17 marks the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the United States Constitution by the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. As Costa Mesans consider adopting a new city constitution, we should look at our nation’s seminal governing document and its history for some valuable lessons.

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall after the document’s signing, a woman approached him and asked, “What have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Students of American history know that one of the central debates among the Founding Fathers was choosing the form of government — between a republic and a democracy. A republic is representative government ruled by law; a democracy is direct government ruled by the majority.


A republic government derives its powers from the people. Franklin knew that a republic is not founded merely upon the consent of the people; its health is absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the republic’s citizens.

James Madison, an ardent proponent of a republic, advised, “It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppression by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.”

The Constitution’s framers were wary of how majority rule in a democracy could compromise individual liberties. Franklin colorfully described democracy as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

Notably, the word “democracy” is not mentioned once in the Constitution (or the Declaration of Independence, for that matter).

Does Measure V, the proposed Costa Mesa charter scheme, measure up to the republican principles espoused in our nation’s constitution?

Nope, and here’s why.

• It consolidates power in a few hands. The proposed charter does not give power to the people, which is the hallmark of a republic. Rather, it repeatedly designates the City Council as the keepers of all things. In a republic, the constitution is designed to limit powers of the government, not increase them. This charter significantly expands the council’s powers, giving a majority supremacy. “Democracy,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson, “becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors.”

• Measure V is really a Declaration of Independence, not a community-based constitution. Mayor Pro Tem Righeimer, his council union, and charter supporters posit that we need to be emancipated from the oppressive government in Sacramento. Our state capital is a convenient antagonist when you’re trying to paint yourself as a liberator in Righeimer’s simplistic narrative.

But what specifically has our governor or Legislature done that fails to protect us in Costa Mesa? How have they prevented us from governing effectively for the past 59 years? The council union’s blanket declaration rings hollow.

• The proposed document offers no stated protections for our residents and businesses. While the charter proponents like to say just the opposite, the document itself is noticeably silent. In fact, the word “protection” is never mentioned. The proposed charter actually eliminates protections offered by the state’s public contracting code, for example. So who really benefits from this charter? The council, with unchecked power, of course.

• It provides unlimited authority to the council to allow for “no-bid” contracts. As Perry Valentine deftly pointed out in his commentary (“The proposed charter and no-bid contracts,” Forum, Sept. 3), the provisions regarding public contracting are open ended and purposefully vague.

If Righeimer, the document’s author, is going to cast aside wholesale the state’s public contracting code (a lengthy and comprehensive set of laws), then the substitute provisions need to provide some details to assure Costa Mesans that we will be protected. That is not the case here. Even the city of Bell’s charter, which became a tool of abuse and aggrandizement by its council and staff, has more detailed provisions and limitations regarding contracting procedures.

Once again, Franklin’s words of caution are fitting: “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

Ultimately, Measure V does absolutely nothing to ameliorate our city’s real problems: current pension liabilities, flagging revenues, compromised public safety and a polarized community.

As you consider voting on the proposed charter scheme this November, ask yourself these questions: Does this constitution insure domestic tranquillity in Costa Mesa? Does it establish justice for our community? Does it attempt to “form a more perfect union” (or just bust them)?

One thing is for certain — this charter should not begin, “We, the people.” It’s not accurate, and it’s not genuine. This original phrase should be treated with respect and honor the tradition of people investing their trust in a limited government.

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