Commentary: ‘Frankenstein’ Charter Would Not Improve City

March 30, 2012

Why does Costa Mesa need this charter?

Set aside for the moment that the proposed charter is a Frankenstein of a document, pasted together using parts of various cities that do not share the demographics, size or unique characteristics of Costa Mesa.

Forget temporarily that this charter scheme was hastily cobbled together by one City Council member, considered by the community with the barest of public discussion (the legal minimum), and set for a vote during the June primary, when voter turnout is historically low.

File away, briefly, any memory of the damage the council majority has inflicted on our community over the past year — the constant vitriol spewed against city employees, the callous disregard for genuine public discourse, the casual dismissal of rules and procedures intended to protect all citizens.

And ignore, for the time being, the council majority’s systematic dismantling of a widely regarded community government that was prudently cultivated over decades.

Assume, rather, that the proposed charter was carefully and thoughtfully crafted as an original document intended to improve governance. Assume too that the council majority — having earned the community’s trust through open-minded dialogue, responsible stewardship of the community’s finances, and a collaborative and cooperative approach to negotiating with the city’s employee associations — set forth a bold and inclusive vision for the community. Would we be having the same polarizing debate about this proposed charter?

Probably not. But the reality is that this council majority has yet to clearly articulate why this tool is so vital to governing Costa Mesa any better. They have cited various potential scenarios where things may be done easier and quicker under the guise of “more local control” — entering into no-bid contracts, outsourcing services, eliminating the city’s collection of association dues — but since when is easy the same as improvement?

Where is the evidence that this charter actually will make a measurable difference?

Every council, since Costa Mesa’s incorporation in 1953, has operated under the same governing rules as a general law city. Since our humble beginnings as Goat Hill to a nearly built-out city of 120,000 people, and in times of both economic uncertainty and prosperity, our representative policymakers have managed to govern our growing community with a suite of tools at their disposal. The general plan, zoning code and city budget are just a few of the instruments past councils have used to guide our growth and development. Moreover, city staff has been able to consistently deliver high quality services — building parks, maintaining roads, processing development applications, ensuring a safe, secure, and pleasing environment — without a charter.

Adopting a charter is not a light or simple decision; it deserves thoughtful consideration and should be justified by well-reasoned arguments.

If the charter ultimately appears on a ballot for my consideration, here’s what I’d like the council majority and its proponents to tell me before I cast my vote: 1.) What critical tasks, specifically, are you unable to do now? And 2.) How will this charter make the difference? Until then, why change?

Jeffrey Harlan is an urban planner and resident of Eastside Costa Mesa.  This article appeared in the Daily Pilot.

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