Costa Mesa has been battling debt and spending for the past several years. That struggle led to the city issuing layoff notices to half of its employees, and a legal battle as the city’s public employee unions have fought a sustained effort by members of the city council who are looking to cut costs and pension liability by outsourcing services.

That effort recently led Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer to work with the city’s staff and attorneys to draft a proposed charter for Costa Mesa. The document, introduced at a council meeting on December 6, 2011, would exert the city’s constitutional right to “Home Rule,” granting the city greater authority and autonomy over purely municipal affairs.

Righeimer granted an interview to PublicCEO and I sat down with him at his office last week.

Why are you considering a Charter for Costa Mesa?

It had been out there. We’d heard about it before. Every time we looked at outsourcing, we’d say, ”The city of Newport Beach did it a certain way.” Then the lawyers would say, “Well, they’re a charter city.” Or we’d say that “Irvine does it a certain way, why don’t we?” And the lawyers would say, “Well they’re a charter city.” At some point you say, “Um excuse me, what is this charter city?”

And I think its something that, unless you have a public administration degree, you don’t know what it is. It’s simply that (as a general law city) your charter or bylaws are sitting up at the Legislature. But if you’re a charter city, you control it yourself. It’s about taking control from Sacramento and keeping it locally, and having a lot more resources to take care of the city.

What process have you gone through to create the draft? What municipalities did you look at when writing this charter?

20, maybe more. We looked at cities around us, but many of those are older and have 100s of amendments and those are tough. San Diego (County) has done a lot of them. It wasn’t really hard.

If you read ours, it’s really straightforward. Box it out, its seven pages; there’s no mystery there.

What I have seen is that if you don’t do something, it won’t get done. After a while, you want to get it moving, you look at legally verified language, put something together, send it to the city attorney, get it kicked back.

We wanted to use legally verified language. Just like when we do ordinances, we look at other cities and their charters.

And what we’re saying to everyone is “Here is a draft.”

What is the process going forward?

Last year, the state stretched out the process and added requirements for the number of meetings. We’re going to triple the number. The state requires three and we’re talking about 8-10 public meetings.

There has to be a document to work on. Anyone who reads it with a fair mind will see it is a very simple document. There’s nothing unusual. It just says that we have supremacy over municipal affairs, and we can control our contracting and those types of items. We didn’t change districts, mayoral elections, how we operate our city. We kept it as simple as possible.

People will probably say that this is ‘cut and paste’ and Costa Mesa is a unique city, and it is. But the language is legally verified already.

We’re having a meeting on the 5th (of January), between staff and citizens and no electeds. If anyone has any ideas or language they want to put in, bring it. We’ll discuss it in public.

They’ll come forward; they’ll have language. They’ll present it to the council and the council will look at it and see if the if it makes sense to do it and if it makes sense to do it now.

This is a conversation starter. There is no honest person who can look at this thing and see anything unusual at all. No changes in voting structure, no difference in how we elect a mayor, no changes to the contribution limits we can take: none of that.

We’re saying that we want to get control of contracting, and this seemed like the simplest way of doing it.

Why not look at by-district elections, or direct elected mayors?

There was a discussion. We don’t want to have a bunch of side conversations, where people speculate the reasons for us doing this or that. Some people want directly elected mayors. We looked at the issues, but we decided we wanted to keep us the way we are. We just want our contracting back.

Why no 15 member commission?

We haven’t found anyone who has gone through the 15-member process. That has to be talked about. We haven’t found anyone; no one does that. Basically, we went back 20 years and we’ve never found a city yet where they have had an election for the 15 members (committee).

That’s more of a process for incorporating a new city. You want to start some sort of process, go to the county, say you’ll incorporate, and have an election. 30 people put their names up for election. But no (incorporated city) we’ve found has gone through that process.

In Santa Clara, they have a 15-member commission reviewing their charter…?

That’s completely different. Because that’s a process where the council puts together a charter review once there is already a charter in place. Newport (Beach) does that. Look over the charter and come up with new ideas. But to go to a vote (for the 15-member committee), you have a campaign over who should be writing the charter that the council has to vote on anyway.

No one has done a commission to write a new, first charter. If you read the law, that process is how you proceed if your council won’t do it.

What help did Costa Mesa get from the California League of Cities?

I didn’t have any conversations with the league, (but) their whole website was very helpful.

They’re pretty even on (chartering), but you can’t go through those lists of how it would affect the city, you can’t read it all and not think that this is a way to get more control for your city. Why wouldn’t you think about it?

That’s also where we found a lot of the charters we used.

(Charters) are interesting documents. In Huntington Beach there are oil wells, it’s in there because that’s an issue there. Newport Beach has issues with boat docks so that’s in there.

The proposed Charter includes “Anti Bell” language. What is it and why did you include it?

We put Anti-Bell language in it, which says we’ll follow state law and limits for pay and benefits for council people. And we added in the requirement that any increase of pension benefits has to go to a vote of the people.

We did that for two reasons: First, to make sure it never happens again.

And secondly, if you look at what the pensions are, they’re a bonded indebtedness. The city owes $224 million (in) unfunded (pension liabilities). To think that we can get that upside down with no one voting for it.

We look at the second tiers and they’re speed bumps. In the very near future, before anyone in these second tiers retires, they’ll revert back into the old system. All they need is a three-vote on the council, they’ll retroactive it.

We want to make sure that doesn’t happen. Once we get a second tier in place, we want to make sure it stays in place.

The Charter includes language regarding fair and open competition and a policy exempting the city from the Prevailing Wage…

We didn’t put Project Labor Agreements language in. We took it out. Prevailing wage is clear as day. We want to be able to negotiate with market rate wages like Newport and Huntington. We don’t want to have to have a union wage.

Is that picking a fight?

No. Absolutely not. The idea is to take control of contracting. Why would we take control of contracting and now we have to ahead and use a union wage when 90 percent of the construction industry is private, and doesn’t use Prevailing Wage?

We are not saying that we can’t have Prevailing Wage, it just needs a vote of the council. We aren’t stopping it, if a future council wants to pay it, they can votes for it, it can happen. Fine.

The proposed timeline calls for the proposed Charter to appear on the June ballot and not the November ballot. Why the earlier option?

The contracts. The jail savings alone on a $1.5 million cost could be $50k a month. That’s just one contract. Why would you wait longer?

You said the charter wouldn’t impact existing contracts.

As people attrit out; we have our people going out, they can go other places in the city.

Our contracts with our employees say we can outsource. That was what the six months notice was all about. They said we had to give six-month notice. And then they said there was a policy from 19-something and we had to follow that process. We stopped the process and started over even though we didn’t think we had to.

Meanwhile they’re suing us saying we can’t outsource even though it’s in the contract that we have now.

OC Register reported lukewarm support or opposition. Do you think this will pass?

I have no doubt that this will pass once presented it will pass handily in the city of Costa Mesa.

When the public sees local control and the amount of savings they’d get, it’s a no brainer.

How do you think the debate will go?

This council has been through a lot; we aren’t naïve. We know how this will probably work.

I think that clearly the labor unions are going to aim for Costa Mesa and the outside money is going to be overwhelming, but I have complete faith that the citizens of CM will see through that, and they wont accept outsiders telling them how to operate their city.