Deciding the fate of 38 constitutional amendments sounds like a big deal.

But Newport Beach officials say changing the city's guiding legal document is a routine part of civic maintenance required to adapt a 54-year-old document to modern times.

Measure EE will ask voters to modify the charter Nov. 6 by checking just one box to make about three dozen changes to a document whose weight hovers somewhere between municipal and state laws.

"The charter is basically the constitution of the city," said Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp.

Then again, the U.S. Constitution doesn't get amended for typos.

About a quarter of California's cities have charters, allowing them to manage their municipal affairs, as long as they don't conflict with state law.

What that leaves open for local control is subject to debate, as evidenced by the heated rhetoric swirling around Costa Mesa's upcoming vote to potentially adopt a charter.

The changes proposed in Measure EE are the latest in a long line of alterations to Newport Beach's charter, which 3,703 Newport Beach residents voted to adopt in June 1954.

Since then, charter amendments have been on the ballot 21 times, according to a city staff report. While the vast majority required residents to cast separate votes on individual changes, 2010's Measure V made about 15 changes with one vote.

"A charter sets the tone and priorities for a particular city," said Paul Watkins, chairman of the Citizens Charter Update Committee, which helped the city craft Measure EE. Watkins was also a member of the 2010 charter update commission.

Supporters say the ballot item mostly takes care of housekeeping.

"Of the 38 items that we have for the 2012 [measure], I believe the lion's share fall into one of three categories," Watkins said. "They're either clerical, anachronistic or they integrate into the charter long-established and long-accepted practices."

Opponents say that the measure would make too many changes for voters to make an informed decision and that some of its more substantive proposals are ill-conceived.

Officials say that to break the measure into multiple questions on the ballot would unnecessarily increase costs.

According to 2010 estimates, the Orange County Registrar of Voters office provided to the city, putting four charter amendment questions on the ballot, as opposed to just one, could have cost about $7,000 more. The price to add two more questions went up in about $5,000 increments from there.

Still, longtime council critic Jim Mosher said, "People don't really know what they're voting on."

The two most substantial items included in the measure, city officials and measure opponents agree, are proposed bans on red-light cameras and on class-action claims against the city.

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Photo enforcement

The red-light camera provision was added to the measure at the council's suggestion after the citizens committee had stopped meeting. Opponents say the move created a "red herring," designed as a last-minute, high-profile "vote-getter."