Commentary: I see shades of Bell in Costa Mesa

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There are patterns of behavior and events associated with problematic city charters. Considering Costa Mesa’s revived city charter efforts, it is important to recognize when these patterns are being repeated so that past mistakes can be avoided. These patterns include unpopular cost-cutting tactics, inadequate checks and balances, evasion of democracy and the illusion of local control.

The following compares some of these patterns in Costa Mesa’s previous charter attempt with key events associated with the city of Bell’s problematic charter, as reported by the Los Angeles Times on July 23 and Dec. 28, 2010.

As many people know, eight Bell city leaders, including City Manager Robert Rizzo, were charged with looting more than $5 million from the city. This scandal has resulted in seven federal, state and county investigations.


Below are some eerie similarities between Bell and Costa Mesa.

Bell: It was a year of lingering recession (1993), Rizzo quickly developed a reputation as a penny pincher and there was a constant climate of layoffs.

Costa Mesa: A recent recession was the backdrop for cost cutting and layoffs in Costa Mesa too. Remember that half the city employees got layoff notices and frequent verbal bashing of city employees served as a constant threat of more layoffs.

Unfortunately, some politicians use stressful conditions like recessions to pursue what would normally be unpopular and intimidating tactics, such as layoffs, outsourcing and city charters.

Bell: The normal checks and balances were absent and Rizzo found himself with an increasingly free hand due to a City Council that could be manipulated.

Costa Mesa: City Council meetings over the last couple of years have shown that, overwhelmingly, the council’s majority votes are the current mayor and his two or three followers in lock-step agreement. Usually the other council members do not agree.

In addition to the worrisome voting patterns, the issues were usually not richly debated by the council majority before taking their predictable vote. With these limited checks and balances, the mayor appears to be dictating council’s policies.

Bell: The Bell City Council authorized a little-noticed special election for the day after Thanksgiving in 2005 to decide if Bell should become a charter city. It is likely that Rizzo and the Bell City Council knew that voter turnout would be low.

The city of Bell has 34,000 residents but the charter passed with just 336 yes votes; 54 voted no.

Costa Mesa: The first charter was unlikely to pass unless, as was expected in the 2012 primary election, the voter turnout was low and skewed toward one particular political party. The council majority rushed through the charter process so that they could get it on the primary ballot, but they missed the filing date.

As in Bell, Costa Mesa’s experience appeared to be an attempt to evade democracy and sidestep the rights of many to select the type of governance for their city.

Bell: Rizzo had aggressively pushed the conversion to a charter city and touted that it would give more local control, but all the effects of this change were not detailed.

Costa Mesa: Like Bell, the Costa Mesa City Council majority has repeatedly claimed, without providing details, that a charter will give more “local control.”

As Bell has shown, a charter does not give more local control; but it can give the City Council more control and power. As another possibility, once the charter is approved by the voters — even a non-controversial one — every council in the future may be allowed to approve a resolution or ordinance to make undesirable changes that won’t require voter approval. This would have been allowed in Costa Mesa’s previously defeated charter.

Costa Mesans, the problematic Bell city charter patterns are present and should be heeded.

Costa Mesa has been essentially scandal-free for the 60 years it has been governed under California general law; let’s keep it this way.

CHARLES MOONEY lives in Costa Mesa.