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Daily Pilot

Commentary: Charter government suits Costa Mesa's personality

By Byron de Arakal

6:38 PM PST, December 1, 2012

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Democracy and sausage-making have often been "linked" (sorry) as really ugly processes that produce good things. But having just passed through one of the nastiest local election cycles I can remember, I'm not feeling the parity between the two anymore. The comparison gives sausage-making a bad name.

We can, though, cling to this one soothing truth about our form of government: We vote, the votes are counted, and the winners take their seats without gunfire or bloodshed. Or at least as far as I know. The worst that seems to happen is that rank P.I.s make ham-handed attempts at entrapping candidates. Also, campaign signs have a habit of going missing or showing up dismembered. If that's the worst that happens, I'll take it over what's happening in, say, Syria.

So in the spirit of a bloodless democracy, City Councilwoman-elect Sandy Genis, as well as incumbent Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan, are to be congratulated for their election wins and shipped best wishes via overnight mail if they haven't already received them (and there's evidence that in some circles they haven't).

Now if you followed the campaign in Costa Mesa — and here's hoping that you had the tots look away from the carnage — you'll know that three issues defined the campaign: Costa Mesa as a charter city, public employee pension reform, and city services outsourcing. All are big issues with plenty of nuance and worthy of separate, continuing chats, even though they're not unrelated.

But for our purposes here, we'll focus on Costa Mesa as a charter city.

This last election reveals that most Costa Mesans like the idea of a charter government (read: city constitution), but they'll not endorse just any old charter. The vote tally reveals as much. Mensinger, Monahan and Costa Mesa Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy (who finished fifth behind candidate John Stephens) collected a combined 41,594 votes. All three men — who ran as a slate, more or less — support a charter form of government for Costa Mesa and were staunch proponents of Measure V, the draft charter that went down in unvarnished defeat.

Meantime, Genis, Stephens and candidate Harold Weitzberg (the opposing slate) tallied a combined 125 fewer votes than Mensinger, Monahan and McCarthy. The three campaigned vigorously in opposition to Measure V, but not so much, it seemed, because they oppose a charter form of government per se. Indeed, the common refrain among their supporters seemed to be this: "We're not opposed to a charter. We're just opposed to this charter."

And that's fair enough.

Indeed, a charter form of government suits Costa Mesa's personality. Our history shows us to be a low-tax, small-government people with an affinity for self-determination and self-governance. Yet Sacramento continues to aggressively expand its power and influence over the municipal affairs of general law cities, including Costa Mesa.

This is taking place in one particularly troubling respect. Sacramento, in its patent incapacity for fiscal discipline, has been thieving city and county revenues with voracious abandon. It's dissolved redevelopment agencies, taking with it billions in redevelopment tax increment that had been financing the renewal, modernization and expansion of city and county tax bases all over California. It's been grabbing greater shares of local property, sales and use taxes and vehicle license fees — all of them critical revenue sources for funding basic municipal services such as fire and police.

The problem is general law cities like Costa Mesa are principally governed by the state constitution and state laws, many of which make it difficult for local cities to manage their budgets through cost-cutting and even revenue enhancements (read: tax increases). So while Sacramento blithely robs cities of their lifeblood, it leaves general law cities little legislative power to achieve some flexibility in managing their budgets in response.

As a charter city, Costa Mesa would have much more legislative authority to shape its fiscal policy and its budget in the areas that cost the city's taxpayers the most: public employee compensation and the provision of city services. I think Costa Mesans want that power.

Why? First, the so-called 3M candidates who campaigned for charter government secured the highest number of combined popular votes. But, more enduringly, Costa Mesans are seeing their taxes move higher everywhere; certainly at the state level (the passage of Proposition 30), and likely at the federal level (don't believe for a minute that federal tax increases will be limited to incomes above $250,000). Their own household balance sheets are ever more at the mercy of government policies and laws they believe, rightly, are undermining their economic security.

As a charter city, Costa Mesa residents would at least have the ability to explore whether they'd save money outsourcing municipal services where it makes sense. And they'd have greater latitude to control the personnel expenses of public employees who provide the services Costa Mesa taxpayers might choose to retain. Fundamentally, that's not a bad thing.

I'm encouraged by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer's acknowledgment of the Nov. 6 defeat of Measure V, and his announced move to establish a charter commission to begin the important work of framing and establishing the constitution that will give Costa Mesa the tools of independence we need to chart our own course. Clearly, Costa Mesa citizens want a bigger voice and more involvement in that process.

As Costa Mesans, we've never suffered outsiders telling us what we should do and how we should govern ourselves. Becoming a charter city will institutionalize that unique independence — loudly, clearly and definitively.

BYRON DE ARAKAL is a former Daily Pilot columnist, a former member of the Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commission and a 20-year Costa Mesa resident.