Harlan: More questions about charter arise


Costa Mesa City Councilman Gary Monahan’s latest campaign pitch for Measure V (“Charter frees Costa Mesa from the state,” Sept. 19) is much like the proposed charter document — vague, long on platitudes and short on specific substance.

Let’s start with Monahan’s central argument: Costa Mesa is somehow under the merciless thumb of Sacramento, and we need to “break free” to recapture local control. Monahan boasts that he knows of several state laws that “impose costly mandates on our city, dictate how we spend our tax dollars or tell us how we must conduct our business.”

OK, councilman, please name a few. Or even just one.

And please explain how on earth the other 361 California cities without a charter (75% of the state’s municipalities) manage to operate at all under the heavy hand of Sacramento?


But for argument’s sake, let’s accept Monahan’s specious premise. The councilman contends that to guard against Sacramento power grabs, charter cities have constitutions “that are specifically tailored to address and protect local needs.”

When exactly did this tailoring process occur in Costa Mesa? The proposed charter scheme’s author, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, basically cherry-picked bits and pieces of other charters and assembled a document that he deems appropriate for our community.

Monahan goes on to assert that the proposed charter will provide “greater flexibility over local affairs while providing opportunity for significant taxpayer savings.” As an example, he claims the charter would implement fair and open competition for the city’s potential public works projects, and protect both union and non-union workers.

Is he suggesting that our current public bidding system is unfair? Is this the injustice the council union is really trying to remedy with this charter?

As for significant taxpayer savings, Monahan points to the prevailing-wage exemption as the critical tool to reduce expenditures on public projects. In concept this sounds appealing, but in practice such an exemption does not always yield promised savings.

Just ask the residents of Oceanside how their charter’s prevailing wage exemption delivered a half-constructed harbor aquatics center by a contractor who was financially unable to perform the work and meet its contractual obligations. Ultimately, the delayed project was taken over by a surety company, and the city was forced to reduce the project’s scope by $1.4 million.

Also, what the councilman fails to mention is that the prevailing wage provision only applies to locally funded projects where no other state or federal (and sometimes county) funds are used. This is a very small portion of the city’s potential public works projects.

Monahan further declares that the proposed charter scheme is designed to make the city more fiscally responsible. He blames the city employees’ unsustainable pensions and overly generous benefits — agreements Monahan consistently voted for during his 12-year tenure on council — as the root cause that could lead us toward bankruptcy. But the proposed charter scheme does absolutely nothing about current pension liabilities.

In what has to be the most ludicrous statement in his commentary, Monahan asserts that the charter provision prohibiting the city from collecting political contributions through payroll deductions from city employees is intended to protect the workers themselves.

Yes, the council union that ignored its legal counsel’s advice and hastily issued more than 200 pink slips to our employees, repeatedly demonizes them in the media and has created an environment of terror and mistrust in City Hall is only trying to protect its valued city workers with this charter.

I’m sure our professional city family feels a great deal of comfort and security knowing that this council union has their best interests in mind.

Monahan’s concluding argument reveals what this proposed charter scheme is really all about for the council union: power. Although he claims this charter “would transfer power away from Sacramento and back into the hands of Costa Mesa residents,” the actual document reserves power only in the council.

Do we really need a charter to give Costa Mesa citizens, as Monahan promises, “a greater voice in the affairs of our city”?

So let me ask the question I posed months ago to the council union and its charter proponents: What critical tasks, specifically, is the council unable to do now without this charter?

What we, the citizens of Costa Mesa, deserve is leadership that respects our intelligence, appreciates different viewpoints and treats its employees and the community with dignity and gratitude.

We deserve a government that can be entrepreneurial, creative and collaborative with existing tools and resources, not one that resorts to fear to secure additional and unnecessary powers.

And we deserve a genuine charter that is thoughtfully crafted, driven by necessity not ideology, and worthy of our community’s diversity and resilient spirit.

Now that would be a constitution worth voting for.

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