CITY CHARTERS: A CHECK AND BALANCE AGAINST OVERZEALOUS LAWMAKING IN A ONE-PARTY STATE
California’s Left has attained its long-desired supermajority in the California State Legislature and solidified its power by effectively nullifying structural checks and balances. Now it’s time for citizens who support economic and personal freedom to start using previously overlooked constitutional protections embedded in the federalist structure of our republic.
One of these protections is Article XI of the California Constitution, which allows a city to enact its own mini-constitution, called a charter. With a charter, a city can establish full “home rule” authority over its municipal affairs, thus freeing itself from costly and oppressive mandates imposed by the California State Legislature. There were 121 California cities with charters before the November 6, 2012 election, and Grover Beach may become the 122nd after all votes are counted.
California union officials – portraying themselves as champions of honest government – argue against charters by claiming that corrupt city councils and managers can take advantage of charter powers to enrich themselves. But politicians who want to commit crimes find ways (and will always find ways) to exploit the existing order, whether there is a city charter or not.
In reality, union leaders oppose charters because charters can circumvent the demands of centralized state government. Where engaged and informed Californians provide appropriate and sufficient oversight and accountability for their local government, charters help city councils and managers to provide the best quality services to their citizens at the best price, under terms and conditions that reflect the priorities of their own communities, rather than reflecting the priorities of the Los Angeles union political machine.
City Charters Are Meaningful: Testimonials on This Local Government Power
A staff report provided to the Murrieta City Council at its October 2, 2012 meeting articulately describes the fundamental principles of governance expressed through a city charter:
The City of Murrieta was birthed from the idea that a knowledgeable, involved electorate should both propel and constrain the direction of its own city. Local control has always been a paramount matter of residents, businesses and the Murrieta City Council. Yet state legislators and previous gubernatorial administrations continue to impose far greater mandates, while at the same time hindering the ability of local governments to operate successfully. With little ability to protest, local governments have watched as the state government continues to balance its budget deficits on the backs of fiscally responsible local jurisdictions…The voice of cities in Sacramento has become mute due to a combination of special interest groups, influential political campaign contributions and tone-deaf lawmakers passing unfunded mandates. This process has left cities with little ability to petition the state government, as evidenced through the City’s complaint regarding new stormwater regulations that will cost millions of dollars to implement with insufficient ability to raise additional funds…Because of the overwhelming demands being placed on local cities throughout California, a movement has begun for local jurisdictions to move from general law city status to charter city status…charter cities have certain protections from the whims of overzealous lawmakers.
Neutral observers and opponents also recognize the potential power of a charter:
· “It's a political manifesto of how government should be organized in the 21st century,” Fred Smoller, professor of public administration at Brandman University (an affiliate of Chapman University), describing Costa Mesa’s proposed (but defeated) Measure V charter, Costa Mesa Fight Heads into Final Round, Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot, Nov. 3, 2012.
· “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…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.” Cities Vying for Local Control on Nov. Ballot, www.CalWatchdog.com, Oct. 16, 2012.
· “[the] city-to-city charter push reflects a new political strategy, as dangerously far-reaching as it is stealthy. It moves these policy conversations down to a very localized level, circumventing state and federal law…Other sectors will see the impact. If more and more cities convert to charter cities, other state laws also go up for grabs. Daniel Villao, State Director, California Construction Academy, UCLA Labor Center, in Eliminating Middle Class Jobs in the Shadow of the Election, www.HuffingtonPost.com, Nov. 5, 2012.
· “One of our biggest concerns is that it would spread to other cities,” Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, in Forget Prop 32, Costa Mesa’s Measure V is the Real Union Fight, Represent! blog of Southern California Public Radio, Nov. 5, 2012.
Consider that union-affiliated organizations spent more than $500,000 on the campaign to defeat the proposed Measure V charter on the November 6, 2012 ballot in Costa Mesa and spent $56.40 per NO vote to defeat the proposed Measure A charter on the June 5, 2012 ballot in Auburn. Union officials understand that fiscally responsible local governments can use charters to slip out of the grasp of the California State Legislature. They spend big money to suppress it.
Charter City Powers Have Been Thoroughly Evaluated and Upheld by the Courts
The California courts have affirmed the rights of cities to engage in this “home rule.” The state’s judicial branch has even developed a four-part test to determine whether or not a city has the authority to set policy for a specific kind of activity as a municipal affair.
In July 2012, the California Supreme Court used this test to conclude that charter cities had the right to establish their policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates (so-called “prevailing wages”) on purely municipal government projects and on private projects regarded as “public works” because they get municipal financial assistance. See State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, AFL-CIO v. City of Vista.
Interested in a Charter for Your City? Read These Comprehensive Resources about the Potential of City Charters in California
2. The League of California Cities has excellent objective and technical information about charter cities and home rule: Resources on Charter Cities from the League of California Cities.
4. Links to two current examples of charters recently approved by voters:
- City of Oceanside (approved by voters on June 2010 ballot)
- City of Vista (approved by voters on June 2007 ballot)
5. Link to the defeated proposed charter for Costa Mesa: Measure V November 2012
You can contact Kevin via the FR right here.
Kevin Dayton is President and CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC and the Dayton Public Policy Institute. See his blog postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com.