As California’s state government struggles to solve budget deficits and other critical problems in the state, voters seem eager to give their communities a greater degree of independence from state laws. 

On November 4, voters in Palmdale and El Centro overwhelmingly approved charters for their cities, thus creating the 115th and 116th charter cities in the state.

The steady trickle of new charter cities in the state threatens to become a flood, as at least a dozen of the 362 remaining “general law” cities in the state are considering charters that would potentially supersede state laws concerning government structure, election management, and contracting out services. 

But even as general law cities move to free themselves from state control over their local affairs, powerful interest groups at the capitol are venturing into local politics to blunt the expansion of local authority. 

What is a Charter City?

Charter city status is included as an option in the state constitution based on the principle that a city, rather than the state, is in the best position to know what it needs and how to satisfy those needs.

According to the League of California Cities primer Charter Cities vs. General Law Cities, “The benefit of becoming a charter city is that charter cities have supreme authority over ‘municipal affairs.’ ”

Municipal affairs are usually defined as:

  • Regulation of the police
  • Subgovernment
  • Conduct of city elections
  • Manner in which municipal officers are elected
  • Local taxes

However, this is not an exhaustive list and a charter city can rule over any number of issues not specifically spelled out in the charter if it includes language that declares the city intends to avail itself of the full power provided by the California Constitution.

That language can be drafted by a city governing board or an elected charter commission and then ratified by a majority of voters.

Only when there is determined to be a “paramount state control” do state regulations on issues such as traffic and school regulation take precedence.

Not a Silver Bullet

Ruben Duran, city manager of El Centro, which passed its charter measure last week with a 60 percent approval, warns a charter is not a cure-all. It simply optimizes local government; it doesn’t fix a dysfunctional one.

“It is not a panacea,” Duran said.

What a charter will do is hold local government accountable so council members can’t blame the state for things like having to hire out of area contractors.

Local control over bidding was the impetus for El Centro’s task force. The rural city was looking for ways to save money on contracting.

The charter commission explored all options for two years and discovered that any exception to the state prevailing wage provision will not impact 90 percent of projects. Any projects that include federal or state funding or require high-end skills will still require paying higher wages. However saving money on that 10 percent of projects could help the city make their dollars go farther.

The city will also be able to use design-build contracts without the state’s convoluted requirements. This can reduce the amount of time required for bidding.

Duran, who has worked in three other charter cities, pointed to a park restroom project that would have cost the city $140,000 under prevailing wage and came in at $110,000 without the provision. “That $30,000 could go toward building another restroom in another park,” Duran said.

The loss of the prevailing wage requirement could also attract more local bidders because they would not have to meet all the reporting requirements or carry two payroll systems based on the project, Duran reasoned.

The commission’s analysis of prevailing versus going wage for a new $26 million water treatment plant did not show a huge savings because the technical work would require paying higher wages. “Although saving even a little bit can be the difference between doing a project and not doing it,” Duran said.

El Centro still has to adopt the norms and procedures that will shape government in the city. Duran plans to start with the generic wording used in the City of Vista and in League of California Cities documents and adopt it to fit El Centro.

In the future, the charter, which includes a requirement for a council-city manager form of government, would require a 4/5 vote of the council to make significant changes.

“Our goal was to better control how local dollars are spent,” Duran said.

Built in Flexibility

In Palmdale, the charter measure passed with 82 percent in favor. The Los Angeles suburb began exploring the pros and cons of charter status in May after a city councilman was elected to the legislature and a state mandate forced the city to hold an expensive special election to replace him. “We were looking for flexibility, ways to save money,” said Saynne Redifer, assistant to the city manager.

The city held dozens of public outreach meetings and concluded adopting the city charter language without some of the more controversial items like exemption of prevailing wage requirements was the best way to achieve that flexibility.  They came to this conclusion specifically because regional labor unions threatened to oppose and defeat the proposed charter if it exempted Palmdale from state prevailing wage mandates. 

A Political Process

The city of Elk Grove near Sacramento is nearing the end of a two-year process that included a task force and charter commission.

Commission chair and real estate broker Jake Allen said the group looked at the option of directly electing a mayor, redistricting, rural boundary protections and taxpayer protections in the form of indebtedness limits. The group made its recommendations to council.  He then watched it change contrary to the work he and other citizen-volunteers invested.

Allen worries that the charter that is finally presented to voters in June of 2010 will be much different than the one recommended by the resident commission.

Although the council originally didn’t ask the commission to address the issue of prevailing wage, during one of the final hearings, it adopted language drafted explicitly by the Sacramento Sierra Building Trades Council that would require both prevailing wage and apprenticeship programs on all city funded projects.

“The language effectively clears the field of any non-union companies,” said Jake Rambo, a Charter commissioner.

“Adopting that language without regular staff analysis or citizen feedback violated the council’s own standard procedures,” Rambo said.

Rambo blamed the insertion on labor’s contribution to three councilmen’s campaigns.

“Other cities need to be prepared for the onslaught of special interest aligned with labor eager to push the same agenda,” Rambo said.

“We didn’t believe that language on prevailing wage belonged in the charter,” Allen said. “That politicized the whole thing.”

Allen is waiting to see what charter language ends up on the ballot to determine whether he will spend the next year campaigning for the measure – or not.

JT Long can be reached at