Charter could cost city funding

New California legislation could cut off some state funding for Costa Mesa based on language the city's Charter Committee has voted to include in a new draft charter.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 7 into law over the weekend, turning the tables on a local debate over how construction workers should be paid. The legislation allows the state to withhold funds for public works projects executed by cities whose charters include ordinances or provisions that allow contractors to pay other than prevailing wages.


These wages reflect rates paid to the majority of workers in a craft, such as metal roofing, telecommunications technical work and tree trimming, and are determined by the state's director of the department of industrial relations, according to the department's website. They are meant to ensure that construction contracts are not awarded because a competitor offers a low wage rate.

The state Supreme Court determined last year that charter cities could waive the requirement on city-funded projects. However, the new law permits the state to deny money for public works projects overseen by those cities.


This change could affect 51 charter cities, according to the League of California Cities, an association of city officials in the state. If the proposed charter passes unchanged, Costa Mesa could be added to this list.


Committee's Decision

In a 10-1 vote Oct. 9, with committee member Harold Weitzberg dissenting and committee members William Fancher and Mary Ann O'Connell absent, the Costa Mesa Charter Committee decided city-funded construction projects would not necessarily require the payment of prevailing wages.


Specifically, Costa Mesa would be free under the proposal to determine wages for projects that "are not of statewide concern, unless payment of prevailing wages is compelled by terms of the funding source," the draft charter reads.

The vote came after discussion of the issue at several previous meetings.

Committee member Ron Amburgey said Friday that he believed the measure would allow the city to save significantly.

"Bottom line is it adds to the cost of construction projects," Amburgey said of prevailing wage.

Not all agreed. Weitzberg, the only committee member who voted in dissent, explained Friday that the cost savings are more blurry than they seem.

"They claim you'll save millions of dollars, but no one is actually showing me you'll save millions of dollars," he said.

The vote represents the beliefs of the Costa Mesa City Council majority, said Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents employee unions in the county.

Each of five council members appointed one member on the committee, according to minutes from the June 4 council meeting on the city's website. They chose the next five committee members by a nomination process and the final three by a lottery.


"It's ideological and political and disappointing because it puts the community and the public at risk," Muir said Friday, explaining that safety concerns arise because the best workers might be bypassed for cheaper labor. "This process is a sham."

The decision reminded Muir of the charter that council members approved last summer for the November 2012 general election ballot. That charter also allowed public contracts not to require prevailing wage under certain circumstances. Nearly 60% of voters voted the charter down.


'An ongoing battle'

SB 7 was introduced last December, before the charter committee had been appointed. It was drafted to affect funding awarded after Jan. 1, 2015, according to the legislative counsel's digest online.

Mayor Jim Righeimer said he was confident SB 7 would be found unconstitutional.

The Legislature had stepped outside of its boundaries by deciding what should be a local or statewide issue, he said, describing the law as a "stopgap measure" to prevent cities from adopting charters.

"For them to decide is a slap in the face," he said. "The only person who can decide is a judge."

Others, such as those from the prevailing wage advocacy group Smart Cities Prevail, saw it as a victory.

The law will serve as an incentive for cities to pay prevailing wage, said spokesman Dale Howard.

"It is a win for middle class workers, and the communities where they live," Howard said in a news release. "Prevailing wage not only boost the local economy, but it can also ensure that local tax dollars being spent on constructions projects stay in the local community."

Whether the committee's vote will be reconsidered remains to be seen.

The agenda has not yet been posted for the next charter committee meeting. Facilitators for the committee, Kirk Bauermeister and Mike Decker, did not respond to email requests for comment.

"It's going to be an ongoing battle, but we're trying," Amburgey had said Friday.