Community Commentary: No need to rush a city charter

Why the rush?

The Costa Mesa City Council has proven once again, when presented with the question, "Do you want it good, or do you want it fast?" that it will choose speed over sanity every time.

Now they're trying to jam through a city charter in time for a costly special election in June. Taking time to consider community input is obviously not important to these guys. As Councilman Eric Bever said at Tuesday's council meeting, "If you don't like what we're doing, tough luck."

The council will hold a special meeting Tuesday regarding its proposal for a city charter, i.e. a new system of laws they've concocted to govern our city. This will be the biggest change in our city's history with consequences affecting every Costa Mesa resident, business and property owner for decades to come, stripping us of all the protections conferred by state law.

The meeting will be the only public hearing where we, the people of Costa Mesa, can tell the council what we want added to their charter proposal face-to-face, though the city is also accepting input from citizens at http://www.ci.costa-mesa.ca.us/charterForm.php.

The council unveiled the scheme in early December, as many residents were turning their attention to the holidays. Under the council's fast-track schedule, they want any suggestions for additions to their charter proposal to be submitted by Tuesday. Items already included can be deleted until the council endorses a final charter March 6, but city officials said nothing new should be added after Tuesday.

By contrast, when I served on the Orange County Charter Commission in 1995, we took nine months to produce a draft charter.

At first, we met monthly. We familiarized ourselves with legal provisions regarding local charters, including what a charter should include and which state laws would apply differently under a charter and how. Once we understood the full scope of issues to be addressed, we broke into four subcommittees charged with different aspects of the charter — and we realized that monthly meetings weren't enough.

All told, we met dozens of times at different locations around the county from Fullerton to Huntington Beach to Laguna Niguel and points in between and beyond. And after we were done, the Board of Supervisors held more hearings!

But Costa Mesa is offering a single public hearing for citizens to offer additions, with the few subsequent meetings focused on what to remove. Clearly this headlong process is not adequate for either the public or the council itself to fully consider the implications of the current proposal.

This became abundantly clear upon review of the Dec. 6 council meeting. Watching the council presentation, I was aghast that anyone so ill-informed would presume to write a charter for our city. Numerous statements in the lengthy sales pitch betrayed a pitiable misunderstanding of existing law.

For example, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer erroneously declared that the state Legislature can order cities, except for charter cities, to take on new programs and absorb the costs locally. But the California constitution requires the state to reimburse any city, charter or not, for costs of state mandates, whether new planning programs or increased care for dogs and cats in the local pound. This can't be changed without a vote of the people.

The presenter seemed not to understand that provisions of the California constitution apply to charter cities. Speakers on the dais and at the podium seemed unaware that the California Constitution gives the Legislature powers to re-allocate revenue for all cities, charter or not. Had these guys missed all the news stories about the many millions lost by charter city Los Angeles at the hands of the state legislature?

These are just a few examples of the misinformation propagated by charter proponents. Before moving forward with any charter, it is imperative that we take the time to become accurately informed as to the city's existing rights and obligations, citizens' rights protected by existing law, and what a charter would change. The education process must start with the members of the Costa Mesa City Council.

SANDRA GENIS is a former Costa Mesa mayor, 50-year resident and member of the 1995 Orange County Charter Commission.

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