Doing The Molasses Back Stroke Again
Around and around they went last night, circumscribing pirouettes, big crossing arcs and tightly-focused spins like Olympic figure skaters until they eventually reached something resembling decisions. Yes, it was another fascinating meeting of the Costa Mesa Charter Committee - their final one of the year.
ONE MORE TIME...
Facilitated by Dr. Kirk Bauermeister and Dr. Mike Decker, the committee charged by the City Council several months ago to come up with a Charter for the city that might have a better chance before the voters next November than Jim Righeimer's disastrous document did a year ago.
BETTER SLOW THAN SLOPPY, BUT...
To say the progress has been slow vastly understates the pace at which this group has been operating. Don't get me wrong - better slow and steady than fast and sloppy, but sometimes those of us who attend these meetings want to scream out in frustration as the same conversations happen over and over and over and over again. You get the idea, right?
DUMPING PROPERTY TAXES?
First item on the agenda, HERE, was member Hank Panian's proposal - in the interest of property tax equity - to phase out the collection of Property Taxes, HERE. Panian - by far the senior member of the committee - was also a member of the very first attempt at converting Costa Mesa to a Charter City back in the 1970s. He is a revered educator in our city and a highly respected volunteer in the community. When he speaks, folks listen. He was supposed to make his pitch at the last meeting, but it was pushed out until last night because the committee stretched things out at that one, too.
NO RESOLUTION - NEED MORE INFORMATION
I read Panian's report and thought this idea would go down in flames with very little discussion. I was wrong. The committee listened courteously and asked excellent questions of Panian and Interim Finance Director Steve Dunivent. Eventually, after nearly forty-five minutes, it was agreed that the committee needed more specific information from the staff before proceeding. That's kind of how the whole night went, as it turned out.
Next up was the discussion of City Budget Reserves, HERE. Dunivent opened by telling the committee that he was making a presentation to city staff on some new budget policies which would mean:
1) A specific requirement for 1% of the General Fund Revenues to be used to replenish Reserves and
2) Between 5 and 7.5% of General Fund Revenues must be used for Capital Projects.
When I heard that I thought the committee, with very little discussion, would probably wait until that proposal was fleshed out by the staff before tackling any overture for Charter language on the issue. I was wrong - again.
OH, MY HEAD HURTS!
Nope, once again they waltz around with this issue to the point that my head was spinning, circling back on previous statements and positions for nearly an hour. Eventually they decided to - wait for it - carry it over to the next meeting. By this time I was joining attorney Yolanda Summerhill in seeking divine intervention, but it didn't come.
COUNCIL COMPENSATION - AGAIN
Next up was the issue of Council Compensation, HERE - which had been thoroughly flogged at the last meeting. Again, I thought that, since this issue had been pretty well wrung-out previously, it might result in a rapid resolution last night. Wrong, again! In baseball I'd be "out" by now.
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS AND MORE QUESTIONS!
Round and round the discussion went. Is a council member an employee? If so, must he be treated as such under labor laws? We thought we agreed last time to pay them a flat stipend and let it take care of any medical/pension choices they might make! Should a council member even have a pension? On and on and on.... It was decided that there needed to be input from Human Resources on the personnel elements of this question. Most committee members opined that council members shouldn't have pensions, but the issue is long from resolved. I had to smile when committee member Tea Party Tom Pollitt - maybe the strongest advocate of Jim Righeimer's Charter on the committee - said in frustration, "Why don't we just use General Law?" That's a refrain many observers have muttered to ourselves as this painful process has unfolded over the many months the committee has met.
UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY
Because of the lateness of the hour Bauermeister proposed shoving the Unfunded Pension Liability issue, HERE, off to the next meeting since the Pension Oversight Committee expects to have important recommendations at that time. That also should have been simple, but member Gene Hutchins - for whom the Unfunded Pension Liability has become his own personal crusade - stretched out what could have been a one-word answer (yes), into another fifteen minute discussion of the issue, including using a bottle of water as a prop.
MEASURING PROGRESS CAREFULLY
So, three hours later and four agenda items put on pause until the next meeting. That doesn't mean there wasn't some valuable discussion last night - there certainly was. What it means to me, though, is that Bauermeister's expectation that the committee will actually have a viable document to present to the City Council by his target date of February 26, 2014 is extremely optimistic. The committee is scheduled to meet four times between now and that date, including that meeting. We'll have a much better handle on it following their next meeting on January 8, 2014.
An observation: The committee, despite the circular path they take on almost every issue, has remained civil and generally followed the rules of decorum they established in the very beginning. I've been impressed with the quality of some of the arguments, on both sides of issues. Maybe "argument" is a little too strong. "Debate" may be a better word. There is a core group on the committee that is obviously well-prepared for this task and have the logical, analytical thought processes and oratorical skills to craft and deliver a coherent message. Yes, there are clearly very divergent views among the members, but it's not unusual to have folks who appear to be polar opposites agree with each other on important issues. I'm encouraged by that fact.
WAIT AND SEE...
Until they get down to the end - when the language of the final document is hammered out - I'm still not sure whether they will produce a document the voters will accept. After all is said and done, the goal is to produce a document that will improve the governance of our city by trading state-mandated safeguards and controls we enjoy as a General Law city for more local control that the public will buy into. With the recent legislation that took the Prevailing Wage issue off the table, the single-biggest reason for even considering a Charter form of government is now gone. And, there is absolutely no assurance the council will agree with their proposal, either. We'll see..