Commentary: Charter would not free Costa Mesa from state


Costa Mesa voters overwhelmingly voted against the proposed charter on the November 2012 ballot.

However, Mayor Jim Righeimer says he will try again in the June 2014 primary election. He proposes to appoint a committee to draft a charter, which the City Council may accept for the ballot. Or the council may modify the committee’s draft and put a revised version on the ballot. Or the council may reject the committee’s draft and come up with its own version of a city charter. The proposal for a council-appointed committee to draft a charter is really not much different from the mayor’s proposing his own charter again.

We are told a charter would “free” Costa Mesa from the state government. How?

Would a charter allow Costa Mesa to revise its pension obligations? No. Those obligations arise out of enforceable contracts and neither the city nor the state can repudiate them, except possibly in bankruptcy.


Would a charter prevent the state from raiding Costa Mesa’s property tax revenues? No. Matters of statewide concern, such as the state budget, are unaffected by a city charter.

Would a charter prevent the state from imposing unfunded mandates on Costa Mesa? No. The California Constitution does that already.

Righeimer says a charter would save us money. But how would it do that?

Well, Righeimer says a charter would allow Costa Mesa to hire contractors on some public works projects who pay less than the prevailing wages to their employees. But there’s no assurance that any savings to the contractor would be passed on to the city, especially if the charter allows for no-bid contracts by failing to mandate competitive bidding for projects over a certain size. That was one of the chief flaws of the charter voters just rejected.

Further, the exemption from prevailing wage requirements doesn’t apply to the 80% or so of public works projects that are partially funded by state or federal grants (estimated by Public Services Director Ernesto Muñoz). So, on the minority of projects that are funded exclusively by Costa Mesa taxpayers, the contractor could pay less than prevailing wages. The labor portion of project costs is about 20% to 30% of the total, as estimated by Muñoz. How much less than prevailing wages could the contractor pay? Say 10% below the standard?

Assuming a project cost of $1 million (a pretty big project to undertake without Measure M or other grant money), the labor portion is worth about $200,000 to $300,000. Ten percent discount on wages is $20,000 to $30,000, a mere 2% to 3% of the project cost, which the contractor may or may not share with the city if it’s a no-bid contract. For that we should yield our powers as citizens to the council, giving up state law protections by adopting a charter?

ELEANOR EGAN lives in Costa Mesa.