By Eleanor Egan
Some Costa Mesa voters are under the false impression that the City could walk away from its pension obligations or substantially change them if it were to adopt a charter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The United States Constitution, Article I, Section 10, states, “No state shall…pass any law…impairing the obligation of contracts….” This is a fundamental part of our Constitution. A contract is legally binding and enforceable upon the parties to it.
The belief that a charter would relieve the City of its pension obligations is false in two ways: first, charter cities are just as fully bound as general law cities are by their contracts with their current and former employees and with the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS); second, a general law city has the same power as a charter city to set up a two-tier system providing reduced pay and benefits to future employees. A charter would not change this at all.
All last year the City Council, led by Mayor Pro Tem James Righeimer, tried to create a crisis atmosphere about the City’s pension obligations to its retired and current employees, particularly police officers and firefighters who constitute the vast majority of the City’s work force. They hired a consultant, John Bartel, whose main recommendation was to increase the City’s annual payments to PERS in order to reduce the amount of the outstanding obligations. He never suggested there was a way to get out of those obligations.
In light of the fact that a charter would leave the City of Costa Mesa in exactly the same position with respect to employee pensions and other compensation as if it remained a general law city, one must wonder how on earth people got it into their heads that adoption of Righeimer’s charter would relieve the City of its pension obligations. It clearly would have no such effect.
Eleanor Egan is a Costa Mesa Resident