Small, But Focused, Crowd For Charter Hearing
Last night a small crowd - around 50 souls - turned out for the first public hearing on the latest iteration of a proposed Charter for the City of Costa Mesa. What it lacked in size it made up for in focus and participation. Perhaps the turnout was small because the meeting was televised live and also available live on streaming video. The City did a miserable job of publicizing this meeting - maybe that's part of the plan. Don't tell anyone so it can be passed under the cover of darkness.
MOST COMMITTEE MEMBERS PRESENT
Several members of the Charter Committee attended the meeting. Ron Amburgey, Andrew Smith, Lee Ramos, Bill Fancher and Tom Pollitt huddled together on the far right (appropriate) side of the room. Gene Hutchins arrived a little late and was alone on the other side of the room. Mary Ann O'Connell and Harold Weitzberg were also in attendance. I did not see Brett Eckles, Hank Panian, Kevin Tobin, Kerry McCarthy nor Tom Graham. Facilitator Pastor Mike Decker attended, too.
STAFF REPORT AND NO PLEDGE
Following the introduction of the issue by Mayor Jim Righeimer, father of the Charter rejected by the voters less than two years ago, attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow of our contract City Attorney's office, provided a brief reading of the staff report, HERE. As an aside, there was no Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at this meeting - a special City Council meeting. I thought it was curious, especially in light of the fact that every meeting of the Charter Committee included not only the pledge - the only committee to do so - but a moment of silence demanded by member Tea Party Tom Pollitt. Last night they faked it - no pledge, no prayer, no silence - no hope.
BARLOW, THE STAFF REPORT
After Barlow delivered her brief monologue council members asked a few preliminary questions, often referring to the draft Charter, HERE.
Sandra Genis wondered about the status of a recent change in state law on Prevailing Wages and was told by Barlow that seven cities have challenged it. Genis referred to section 700 of the Charter, Public Contracting and mentioned the Public Contracts Code. Barlow said the Charter uses General Law as a fall back position. Genis wondered what this Charter contains that we don't already have - a dominant question throughout the evening. Nobody really answered the question.
LEECE, OUTSOURCING AND REVIEW
Wendy Leece wondered about section 802, Outsourcing, and asked if the current limitation of $49,999 applies before council approval is required and was told yes, but the council could change it by ordinance. Leece also wondered about section 800, Charter Review. She wanted to know if the council could change the Charter on it's own and was told by Barlow that every change to the Charter must be voted upon by the people. Mention was made of the arbitrary threshold of 2,500 voters required for a petition to place recommended changes on the ballot. Quite honestly, this process is more than a little bit fuzzy. Every time they tried to resolve it they missed the mark.
"COIN" CAST IN CONCRETE
MORE ON "REVIEW"
Another discussion took place about the Review Process. As I mentioned above, the issue was murky from the start. The conversation bounced back and forth about a Charter Review Committee and/or a Commission, elected by the voters. The process - under the best circumstances - seemed vague and cumbersome.
WE DON'T NEED IT
Committee member Harold Weitzberg led off the Public Comment segment with a brisk, three-minute presentation in which he immediately affirmed that he didn't think the City needs a Charter, discussed the process the committee went through, then provided color-coded slides demonstrating just why we don't need a Charter. Far and away the greatest number of segments of the proposed Charter are for issues that we can already manage. He told us this Charter doesn't change anything.
James Bridges described the recent effort by the committee as a wasted opportunity, alluding to the stacked deck the committee appeared to be. (My term, not his). He also mentioned that Tustin recently revoked all compensation for council members and it seemed to be working out just right.
Melissa Abraham wondered about eminent domain and later was told that eminent domain is controlled by state and federal law and the Charter doesn't change that.
OUTREACH AND CELL PHONES
Chris McEvoy expressed concern about future advertising mailers that will be biased in their presentation of the issue and suggested he didn't want his tax dollars advocating for a charter. He veered off-course and criticized council members for cell phone use and thought maybe a prohibition should be placed into the Charter.
MEASURE V FAILURE
Greg Thunnel, among other things, reminded the council of the major failure of Measure V at the last election.
UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY
Committee member Gene Hutchins - one of the nicest men you'll ever meet - thanked the committee members, then told us that the Charter will "save the city a lot of money" - but didn't say how. He, to the surprise of nobody who has observed the committee in action over the past year, brought up the Unfunded Pension Liability - but the Charter will have NO impact on it. He mentioned that it requires a 2/3 majority of the voters to increase any post-employment benefits.
Susan Shaw, Terry Koken and Perry Valantine spoke - the latter reminded the council that any communications sent out by the city must NOT be one-sided - it must present both sides of the argument on the Charter.
RIGHEIMER'S THE PROBLEM
Cindy Brenneman stepped up and stated categorically that we don't need a Charter, and reminded everyone that we still have not heard why we should have one. Then, responding to an earlier Righeimer admonition that the crowd should not clap following speakers because folks are intimidated, told Righeimer that HE is the one who intimidates speakers - that he has worn people down. She referred to the speaker's podium as a "sacred place" where residents should feel safe to speak to their elected leaders, but that he intimidated and discouraged them. She told him the "dirty dozen" - regular speakers - will NOT be worn down. When the crowd cheered Righeimer called a ten minute break and scampered out of the auditorium, talking on his telephone.
LOCAL CONTROL - OF US!
Following the break Tamar Goldmann told the council that the only "local control" she saw coming from this Charter was more control the three of them - the council majority - would have over us!
Then up stepped committee member Ron Amburgey, who promptly told the audience that he'd lived in Costa Mesa his entire life and the rest of us were just tourists! Nice, huh? From a guy who's running for a seat on the Mesa Water District Board... nice style. He went further - after being heckled by the audience to "speak to the council" - something Righeimer has frequently reminded other speakers in the past but seemed to ignore in the case of his supporter, Amburgey, who told us that previous councils had led us astray and "hurt us". He didn't mention whether he included his father in that indictment. He told us "the unions spent a half-million dollars to defeat the last Charter." The crowd reaction to that was predictably unappreciative of that observation.
Sue Lester suggested that a cost analysis be done to determine the potential savings of a Charter.
SAVE MILLIONS? HOW?
Tea Party Tom Pollitt, also a committee member - you'll recall his blow-up at a meeting earlier this year when he went into the break room, slammed the door and pouted for a few minutes in a fit of anger - said he supported the Charter, said it would save millions (but didn't say how) and would give the council more flexibility (but didn't define what kind of flexibility).
DON'T NEED IT
Anna Vrska told the council we didn't need a Charter.
WHY? NOT ANSWERED
Former councilman Jay Humphrey said he was disappointed that no determination had been made as to whether we actually did need a Charter, and why. He suggested that answers to all the questions asked last night be provided in a form of a memo on the city web site so all residents could read it.
MEASURE V NUMBERS
Karl Ahlf, a life-long resident and former council candidate, reminded the council of the resounding defeat of Measure V, and gave the percentages .
MAKING IT UP...
Resident Phil Morello stepped up to support the Charter, stating several times that he was a "physical conservative" - we presume he meant "fiscal". Then he said, "Why do we need a Charter? Get a clue!" He said the city is $260,000,000 in debt - pulling a number out of the air, or from somewhere. He then, in response to Brenneman's comment above, said "this isn't a sacred place, it's politics!"
COMMITTEE BALANCE AND OUTREACH
The 19th and final speaker was Robin Leffler, who observed that the configuration of the committee did not represent the configuration of the voters, no matter how you tried to manipulate it. She said whatever planned community outreach should not be a "sales pitch" like the last time. We need to be given options and the costs.
Of the nineteen speakers, only four - Amburgey, Pollitt and Hutchins (committee members) and Morello spoke in favor of the Charter. One person - Abraham - just asked a question. All the remaining speakers spoke strongly against the Charter. Of course, Righeimer and his majority will completely ignore those numbers.
GARY SHOULD HAVE REMAINED SILENT
First up among the council members was Gary Monahan, who showed up nearly 20 minutes late, but at least he showed up this time. He acknowledged that he'd been fairly quiet in recent months, but that he'd make up for it last night. As it turned out, he should have remained silent.
POWER AND "MARY JANE"
He launched off into a tirade by stating that the Charter would give NO MORE power to the Council - clearly refuting what members of the committee who crafted it had said. He said, "This Charter does not give any more power to anyone." Then he made mention, again, of Medical Marijuana - a curious comment, just as was his previous one last Tuesday. Could it be that he wants in on some of the anticipated medical marijuana action that is being hinted about in town?
Monahan suggested that Lester's idea about a cost analysis was a great idea, then went almost apoplectic on the subject of council member compensation. To say he came unglued would be a major understatement! He refuted Bridges suggestion that council members work for free, indicating that he's putting in 50 hours a week on his council duties (I don't believe that for one second, by the way), and that it "almost kills me". He suggested that "900 a month and health insurance won't keep me on the job, but it helps." He then said "I think you're nuts!" and that it was a "crazy idea!" As I said, he should have remained silent.
CELL PHONES AND MALAPROPS
He also commented on speaker Chris McEvoy's observation that there should be a ban on cell phones on the dais by citing examples of why they should have them - emergencies, like "a kid getting hurt". As he ranted he made a very interesting malaprop.. he said the word "hiper bowl". I suspect he had a script and was trying to say "hyperbole". It was very peculiar. As I said, he should have remained silent.
Then, in perhaps the most bizarre comment of his entire rant, as he wrapped up he said, "Don't say you don't want it on the ballot because you don't like it!" Really? Why not? Is that not a good reason? It was VERY clear that most of the speakers before them last night had a MUCH better idea of what was in the draft Charter than Monahan did. With each passing meeting it is becoming clear that he has "stayed too long at the dance". Unfortunately, his term doesn't expire until 2016.
Sandra Genis pointed out what I feel is the stake in the heart of this Charter - section 104, Powers. The way the committee worded this section it appears to give virtually unlimited power to the city council.
Wendy Leece corrected a misstatement made by Pollitt earlier, then discussed Prevailing Wage, using Oceanside's failed Recreation Center project as an example. She also pointed out the need for tighter financial controls, using the 60th Anniversary debacle as an example. She also mentioned a runaway contract for computer support that ended up more than double the original proposal and nobody was watching. She also mentioned that company was a campaign contributor to certain council members.
Steve Mensinger addressed "all the folks at home", mentioned that the Charter holds folks accountable - but didn't say how. He repeated the question, "Why do we need a Charter?", then answered "Why wouldn't we?", smirking.
Genis observed that the differences between this Charter and General Law are insignificant.
Then it was Righeimer's turn - and it was worth waiting for. He concurred with an earlier speaker's observation that 75% of California cities are NOT Charter cities, then said, "But, 80% of the people live in Charter Cities.", as if that somehow justifies Costa Mesa becoming one. Then he said, "Once you do a Charter you have complete control!" He then said, "If you have a simple Charter you can go ahead and do those things." Why, thank you, Mr. Mayor. The LAST thing I want to give you is "complete control" over anything, much less my city!
He talked about the Vista case and mentioned that's what Bonds are for. Yikes!
BLAMING "THE UNIONS"
In response to McEvoy's question, "What are the first fifteen things you'd do with a Charter?" he said, "Make a list." He then launched off into a tirade about how "the unions" refused to let the city do any outsourcing - citing at first the "little old guy in an apron who printed our business cards." Geez!
JAILERS 1ST IN LINE...
He then brought up the fact that our Jail operations are in the process of being outsourced and told us that the guys that work in the jail really want to be cops, so they take the job as a jailer so they can be close to cops. He then said "Put jailers 1st in line to be a police officer."!!! I guess Chief Gazsi will be happy to know that the mayor has his recruitment problem all solved for him. Good grief!
Then Righeimer did the unanticipated - he actually apologized for the way he handled his Charter two years ago. He said, "The last time was the wrong way to do it." He said it was a "humbling experience" going from door to door, talking about the Charter and having people tell him they were not against a Charter, just against HIS charter. He actually apologized several times. Cue the violins, please.
He went off in a stream-of-consciousness rant, talking about "if you want to change the Charter later all you have to do is elect a Charter Commission." He neglected to mention that under the proposed Charter the city council gets to decide when elections are held - if ever.
NEXT MEETING JUNE 3RD
Then the council addressed the next Public Hearing. Originally it was supposed to be May 20th, but the date of this first meeting slipped, which required shifting the subsequent one. Now, according to the information last night, the second - and final - public hearing on this Charter will be on June 3rd, during the regular council meeting. As the discussion ensued Righeimer, unilaterally, told the group, "Don't mess with the dates!" Gee, who made him king? Oops, I guess we did, huh? Then, the first meeting of July - the 6th was mentioned - the council will vote on whether to place the Charter on the ballot. Because this meeting slipped a little, the fudge factor City Clerk Brenda Green built into the process got a whole lot tighter. We all recall what happened two years ago when a "clerical error" cost then-City Clerk Julie Folcik her job.
There was a great deal of confusion about public outreach and the timing, cost and message to be sent on any communications to the community. CEO Tom Hatch was not helpful with that process. It was clear from most speakers who addressed it that they felt whatever the city communicates on this Charter should not be biased one way or the other. That should be very interesting, because the last time around the communications coming out of City Hall were basically sales brochures, hawking a flawed product with glossy mailers.
I came away from the meeting last night with a strange feeling of deja vu. We'd been here before, but this time there was not as much energy in the building. The crowd was smaller, but those who spoke were passionate. Interestingly, as many speakers pointed out, this Charter as currently written gives the city very little that we don't already have as a General Law City, but if implemented it does remove some very significant protections from abuse that we currently enjoy. And, there are a couple areas that make it completely unacceptable because it leaves the door wide open for mischief by this or future councils. It will be interesting to see what happens at the next hearing, since no member of the council offered up anything significant in the way of changes or additions. The clock is now ticking...
WATCH IT YOURSELF...
So, that was it. Watch the streaming video of this two-hour plus meeting, or watch it on replay on CMTV. Form your own opinions.