Harlan: Why Costa Mesa should reject the city charter


Over the past few months there has been much talk about approving or rejecting the proposed Costa Mesa charter, often described as a constitution for our community’s governance. I invite you, my fellow Costa Mesa residents, to think of the charter in a different context.

At its core, a charter serves as a contract between the government and the community. In addition to identifying the need for a charter, the document should define terms, detail procedures, and establish roles and responsibilities. Here, our City Council union is proposing an agreement that significantly reshapes the relationship between Costa Mesans and our elected officials. Such a proposition is not without its risks.

When evaluating a contract to determine whether it is a worthwhile risk, I focus on three factors: the process in creating the agreement, the specific language in the document, and the nature of the relationship between the parties.


Typically, parties develop an agreement by engaging in a dialogue to ensure that the final product serves their mutual interests. Ultimately, the contract must represent a meeting of the minds between the parties. Each party had an equal say in forming the contract, and everyone understands their respective expectations and obligations.

In the case of the proposed charter scheme, what kind of dialogue occurred between the council and our community members? How much input have we really had in crafting this document? Were the legally required public hearings real forums for meaningful discussion and debate, or just perfunctory exercises in futility?

Here, the council union, led by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, engaged in a hasty, unilateral process. There was no good-faith negotiation, no earnest consultation, no open-minded conversation between the council union and the community. Today’s document is, substantively, the same one that was rushed to the ballot in June.

Instead of fostering a healthy exchange of ideas, the council union’s process created a narrowly focused and ideologically driven charter.

And as we all know with contracts, the devil is in the details. Agreements such as this, which deviate from standard practice and affect all Costa Mesans, need to contain clear language that all parties understand.

Let’s look at the language Righeimer has delivered. It is, to put it bluntly, boilerplate. It’s been cobbled together from a handful of other charter documents; nothing speaks specifically to the needs or desires of the Costa Mesa community as a whole.

When you’ve engaged in business with a party previously, and the contract is for something simple (e.g., buying office supplies), boilerplate language may be perfectly appropriate. But when you’re charting new ground, changing the dynamics of local governance, and impacting the entire community, a cut-and-paste job is simply unacceptable. It shows a lack of interest, no imagination and little regard for the gravity of this undertaking.

And this is serious stuff. For example, Section 103 of the proposed charter attempts to describe the general powers to be granted to the council. However, the language is so vague and convoluted that reasonable people could come to differing interpretations. It is this kind of obfuscation that should make every Costa Mesa voter wary of the council union’s intent.

Ultimately, in considering whether to enter into a contract the most important factor is trust — do you trust the other party to live up to his or her end of the bargain? We put a great deal of faith in each other to do right by the terms of an agreement. In legal terms, we also require each party to pay some form of consideration—something of value that induces them to enter into the agreement. Sometimes it’s a simple as a promise.

What has this council union promised us in this proposed charter scheme? What have they done to earn our trust, so that we know this promise is genuine and made in good faith?

Unfortunately, this council union’s track record supplies plenty of reasons to be apprehensive: an ill-conceived outsourcing plan, millions of dollars unnecessarily spent on legal fees defending the poorly executed plan, an unconscionable traffic mitigation agreement for Banning Ranch, and unwanted publicity for all of these activities.

If we’re going to define a new relationship between our community and our government, let’s do it correctly. Let’s do it together, grounded in mutual respect and clearly written to reflect our diverse community’s real needs and desires.

As a contract, this proposed charter scheme is one we should reject.

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