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Community Commentary: Why Costa Mesa should become a charter city

On Tuesday, I will put forward a proposal that our City Council ask our citizens whether we should become a charter city. After my first year on the council, it has become clear to me that in order for our town to thrive in the 21st century, we must free ourselves from the way union-backed politicians in Sacramento want our city to run and bring more local control — and common sense — to Costa Mesa.

But you do not have to take my word for it. Just look at what the non-partisan California League of Cities has to say in its excellent analysis for those wanting to know more about a "special form of local control" known as charter cities. It begins:

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"Did you know that … voters can exercise a greater degree of local control than that provided by the California Legislature? Becoming a charter city allows voters to determine how their city government is organized and, with respect to municipal affairs, enact legislation different than that adopted by the state."

About 120 California municipalities are charter cities, including Costa Mesa's closest neighbors: Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Irvine and Santa Ana. Becoming a charter city — where a local constitution (or charter) trumps Sacramento-imposed rules — provides taxpayers with two primary benefits: local control and significant savings.

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How does it work? It is very simple. The California Constitution under Article XI section 5(a), the "home rule" provision, affirmatively grants charter cities supremacy over "municipal affairs."

What that means is that a charter city can, among other things, contract out for services without Sacramento's interference.

Whenever a non-charter, or general law, city wants to do any road, park or infrastructure projects, Sacramento increases the cost on local municipalities by adding above market labor rates, unsustainable pension costs and byzantine work rules. A charter city can contract for that work at market rates.

Charter cities can outsource services that make sense to the taxpayer and not face, as happened in Costa Mesa, dubious lawsuits brought by employee unions that could cost our city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Newport Beach has been able to outsource many of its services recently with no threats of expensive litigation.

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The charter movement has gained momentum in recent years as more general law cities, such as Costa Mesa, look to escape Sacramento's burdensome and union-influenced laws that have put many cities, counties and the state itself on the brink of financial disaster.

Charter cities also are freed from being forced to pay so-called prevailing wages on public works projects, a union-inspired regulation that's estimated to add 10% to 30% to each job. Imagine getting 20% more in road repairs or park improvements or simply using the savings to pay down Costa Mesa's $221-million unfunded pension liability.

The charter city movement, of course, is extremely threatening to public employee unions, which control Sacramento. The unions have been able to control general law cities and counties though state legislation.

When a general law city puts a charter up to a vote — the only way the change in governance can occur — the unions rush in with huge amounts of money and misinformation campaigns to defeat the measure.

Among the scare tactics: This will turn the city into another Bell (these days, charters have anti-Bell measures included to prevent that kind of corruption) and local control will lead to some unspecified corruption (in fact, local control means more citizen oversight, not less).

They will also say that the city will get shoddy workmanship if it does not follow state bidding guidelines. Newport Beach has great roads and parks and pays less than Costa Mesa does for the exact same work without those guidelines.

The reality is that city charters in California are very similar to each other and have worked extremely well to pry control from Sacramento and stretch taxpayer dollars.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Costa Mesa City Council will begin exploring the possibility of putting a city charter on the June 5 ballot. We will have more than three months of public meetings and community gatherings to tailor the charter to Costa Mesa needs and to put proper checks and balances into the system to insure we have the best and most transparent local government possible.

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If the council votes to put the charter on the ballot, Costa Mesans will have another three months to debate its merits before voting on it.

In the meantime, check out the charter primer on the California League of Cities website. It's a good place to go for the facts. And in the case for charter cities, the facts are friendly.

JIM RIGHEIMER is the mayor pro tem of Costa Mesa.

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