Charter Warning Compares What Could Happen in Costa Mesa to What Happened in Bell

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City of Costa Mesa
Mayor Jim Righeimer (center) leads a three-member City Council majority that supports Costa Mesa becoming a charter city.

Days after the Costa Mesa City Council held the second of two public meetings required by state law of proposed charter cities, a San Diego-based nonprofit launched a website warning the public that it is among five or so California cities that risk becoming another Bell.

A civics lesson:

-Most cities in California are "general law" cities, which means they are governed by a set of provisions laid out in the state constitution that establish standards for local governance.

- Of California's 482 cities, 121 have enacted charters that grant local politicians additional powers beyond what's allowed in general law cities, including the power to raise their own pay, increase taxes/fees and run deficits. Critics of charter law cities claim they are also more open to facing litigation due to conflicts with state law.

- Bell (population 40,000) became the poster city for corruption in 2010 when, five years after becoming a charter city in a special election that generated less than 400 votes, several city officials were exposed for giving themselves extraordinarily high salaries. Indictments, prison sentences and a Pulitizer for the LA Times followed.

The charter city boosters put the idea before Costa Mesa voters in November 2012, and 60 percent rejected it. That led to a citizen's committee being formed to write a completely new charter, which the council could vote on July 1 to put on the November ballot.

But the Middle Class Taxpayers Association launched a new website called Charter Warning that aims to provide "a reliable source for information on potential dangers that can be hidden in some city charters like the ones being considered this year in as many as five cities across California." Costa Mesa is included among the five.

Murtaza Baxamusa, a Middle Class Taxpayers Association board member, maintains a charter has "few protections for taxpayers--allowing politicians and city officials to raise their pay to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and leaving the public with the tab."

Ironically, the Costa Mesans who support a charter say their version will better protect taxpayer funds, especially when it comes to reigning in employee pensions. But Charter Warning points to a recent report by the prestigious law firm Olson, Hagel & Fishburn titled "The Illusion of Autonomy" that found that charters provide no better protection for local tax dollars than general law cities.

"In fact, the city council in Emeryville recently discussed the idea of going charter for the sole purpose of gaining more flexibility to propose tax hikes on the people," warns Charter Warning. "Given the lower bar to raise taxes, it is not surprising that some taxes are as much as 15 times higher than in general law cities."

Now, from what I know about Righeimer and his gang, they are not exactly tax-and-spenders. More like slash-and-enders (as in ending government union jobs). But their mayoral and city council reigns will not last beyond their charter's. Perhaps someone should launch BeCarefulWhatYouWishFor.com.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!


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2 comments
Lovemygarden
Lovemygarden

Why have a charter?  The mayor keeps telling us that the city will not operate any differently than under general law.  The charter can't get rid of the unfunded pension liability (the one the mayor doesn't want to do anything about).  It can't get rid of existing contracts. It might be more expensive than running the city under general law, especially because of the likelihood of participation in lawsuits (Oceanside, etc.) or bankruptcy (San Bernardino, etc.) or the ability to raise taxes on residents and businesses.  Other cities have looked at becoming a charter city and said "no thanks".  Costa Mesa doesn't need this charter (which looks remarkably like the 2012 iteration) or any other charter.

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