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Daily Pilot

Costa Mesa voters to consider city charter

The document would serve as the city's constitution, governing private contracts, employee agreements and the form of government.

By Bradley Zint

8:23 PM PDT, October 5, 2012

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Costa Mesa's governance will shift toward increased local control should a majority of the city's voters approve a proposed charter in November's general election, advocates say.

The ballot's charter initiative, Measure V, attempts to change Costa Mesa from a general-law city under the purview of state guidelines to being home-ruled by a charter.

The major changes imposed by the charter, which would essentially serves as a city constitution, have been hotly defended and contested in the months since the document made the Nov. 6 ballot.

The city had tried to bring the charter initiative before voters in the June election, but a missed deadline stymied the effort.

The 10-page document was not drafted through the collective decisions of a committee — much to the ire of charter critics, who claimed it was drafted in a rushed fashion without sufficient public input.

Proponents, however, led by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, Mayor Eric Bever, and councilmen Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger, contend that the charter would allow residents to "have ultimate control over local affairs," according to their arguments on the ballot.

"Measure V will finally ensure Costa Mesa citizens obtain the local control they deserve and taxpayers receive the protections they need," Righeimer said in an email. "Beyond the typical cost savings provided by a city charter, Measure V will also provide an extra taxpayer safeguard by requiring voter approval for any increase in pension benefits for city employees."

Added Mensinger: "If the charter passes, everything changes."

Among those in opposition are Councilwoman Wendy Leece — often the lone dissenter of the five-member council — and Costa Mesans for Responsible Government (CM4RG). On its website, the grass-roots activist group claims implementation of the charter would foster an environment of cronyism in council leadership and provide minimal city savings.

The city charter "really reduces public control by allowing unlimited no-bid contracts and purchasing," said Robin Leffler, president of CM4RG. "It doesn't adopt any of the state law that would protect us against favoritism or fraud on that issue."

She said the document doesn't address the city's pension liability and that it contains a considerable amount of vague language with "lots of red flags for lawsuits."

"It doesn't really give us local control," Leffler said. "It reduces local control because all of the power is concentrated in the City Council."

Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents many Costa Mesa employees, said in an email that the charter was written "behind closed doors" and that the council refused community requests to participate in its creation.

"The cities of Bell, Stockton and Vallejo were all charter cities, and all faced bankruptcy or corruption scandals," Muir said in a prepared statement. "This charter has serious flaws that put the city on a path to be next."

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Major components of the charter

•Form of government: The charter maintains the current council format of five members who serve four-year terms. The term limit is a maximum of two consecutive terms. The council still chooses a mayor and mayor pro tem, who each serve two years. Qualifications for office are still under the auspices of the state, and council members cannot concurrently serve in another city office or city employment.

Furthermore, the charter states that no council member may "coerce" the city CEO, formerly known as the city manager. Unless allowed by the city attorney, the council must only deal with city functions through the city CEO and not give direct orders to his or her subordinates.

It also limits the council members' pay to be in accordance with state law.

•City contracts: The charter defines city public-works contracts as "the erection, construction, alteration, repair or improvement of any public structure, building, road or other public improvement of any kind" that are paid for only by city funds. These contracts would be exempt from prevailing-wage requirements, which are state-mandated rates set by unions and other parties.

•Employees: With the exception of cost-of-living adjustments, increases to Costa Mesa employees' retirement, post-retirement benefits or employer contributions cannot be increased without voter approval.

In addition, the city will no longer be allowed to take political contributions from employee paychecks, according to City Attorney Tom Duarte's analysis of the charter. Though the city labels Duarte's analysis as "impartial," critics have argued Duarte and his analysis cannot be impartial because he is an employee of the council majority.

•Charter review: During the second meeting of every 10th year, a public hearing will determine if a review commission is needed, according to the charter. The commission would suggest amendments to the council for potential implementation.

The charter and any of its provisions may also be amended by a majority of voters. Amendments or repeals can come through an initiative or the council itself.

— Daily Pilot staff writer Mike Reicher contributed to this report.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @bradleyzint