Cities vying for local control on Nov. ballot

Oct. 16, 2012

By Katy Grimes

In addition to a government reform ballot initiative attempting to stop unions from using employee dues for political purposes, three cities have initiatives on the November ballot asking voters to allow a constitutional change to become charter cities.

Proposition 32, the ballot initiative which would ban automatic payroll deductions by corporations and unions of employees’ wages to be used for politics, is a big deal and would give back the individual voice in politics.

Equally full of impact, EscondidoCosta Mesa, and Grover Beach, currently general law cities under the California Constitution, are also asking voters to allow the cities the chance to regain local control.

The change from a general law city to a charter city is technical, but very powerful and important. Charter cities have significantly more autonomy and flexibility than general law cities to protect taxpayer funds through more careful spending, and exemptions from state-mandated prevailing wage agreements and Project Labor Agreements.

Charter changes

The charter provides a city with the ability to control its own business on a local level. Local elections, decisions about city salaries, zoning and land use issues, and financing, are all issues that newly formed charter cities would have control over.

In providing local control, voters would have more input into how a city is run, and how projects are managed, and manage these projects at reasonable, competitive prices.

The charter city initiatives include important provisions to allow cities to decide whether or not to pay union wages on public works projects, an issue hotly contested by the state’s construction labor unions. Provisions also require voter approval to increase city workers’ retirement benefits.

Proponents of the charter city initiatives say that a charter will bring about tremendous cost savings by allowing cities to pay non-union wages and contract out for many projects.

Charter cities would be allowed to use local businesses. They could once again have volunteers work on projects, and accept donations for these projects.

Currently, if there is union labor involved in a local public works project, no one is allowed to volunteer or make a private donation to the project, lest it displace a union worker.

But the biggest benefit, according to Kevin Dayton, CEO of Dayton Public Policy Institute, an employment and labor specialist and charter city expert, would be not having to pay prevailing wages on local public works projects. In a recent interview, Dayton said that labor union prevailing wage rates do not accurately reflect the actual industry rates, nor do they accurately reflect the construction industry in all areas within the state.

Costa Mesa

“The fire-fighting model has to change, ” Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer said in an interview. Righeimer, who introduced Measure V, the city charter change to Costa Mesa, explained that Costa Mesa gets 9,000 9-1-1 calls each year, but more than 6,000 of the calls are for medical services. “A couple thousand calls are duds,” Righeimer said, “but only 224 of the calls are actual calls about fire. Mostly barbeque fires, garage fires or kitchen fires. Costa Mesa doesn’t have many fires.”

Righeimer said what then happens after the 9-1-1 call is that fire engines arrive at the caller’s residence, along with ambulance services on medical calls, and merely follow the ambulance to the hospital where the fire fighters stand around until everyone is cleared to go. It works this way because the fire fighters’ union negotiated for two paramedics on each fire truck in addition to the fire fighters, requiring them to go to the hospital with the ambulance.

As a city council member, Righeimer wants the flexibility and control to be able to decide if this is cost-effective policy for Costa Mesa, and to establish its own government-mandated construction wage rate policy for municipal projects.

But the rational discussion about cost effectiveness has turned into an all-out assault. According to Dayton, unions have steamrolled right over smaller cities’ efforts to adopt charters. “Union leaders get very testy when someone points out that a charter city can establish its own policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates,” Dayton said.

Opposition to charter cities

Showing how much is at stake in this fight, Righeimer said that the Orange County Employees’ Association, the State Building and Construction and trades Council, and other labor unions, all opponents to the Costa Mesa charter city initiative, have just made a $160,000 media purchase  in Costa Mesa to fight the charter attempt.

“As more and more California cities head down a path toward becoming ‘charter cities,’ more and more officials reveal their true intention: to avoid paying the prevailing wage,” one opposition blogger wrote.

“The charter city movement in Costa Mesa, as most other places where this battle is being fought, is a thinly veiled anti-union attack akin to Michigan’s ‘Emergency Financial Manager’ law. It aims to put legislation into place that undermines the bargaining power of labor organizations under the auspices of fiscal responsibility. It’s playbook Right Wing stuff….”

However, a recent California Supreme Court decision upheld the right of California’s 121 charter cities to establish their own policies about government-mandated prevailing wages in municipal construction projects.

Righeimer said that Costa Mesa residents should not have to spend 20 percent more for public works projects, and will save money should the city adopt a charter. “We love our police and fire,” Righeimer said. “It’s just not sustainable at this level.”

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