Citing the need for “local control,” Murrieta City Council members on Tuesday gave city staff direction to continue on the path toward the possibility of becoming a charter city.
Though no official action was taken, council members were presented a time line that if adopted would call for a ballot measure in June or November of 2014. Public hearings would need to be held, a charter would need to be drafted, and a city council vote would be required prior to a citywide vote.
What is a Charter City?
Murrieta incorporated in 1991 as a general law city, meaning its powers are derived from the California Constitution as well as ever-changing laws enacted by the Legislature.
A charter city’s authority, however, is derived from the state Constitution as well as an adopted set of bylaws found in the city’s charter, city of Murrieta Senior Management Analyst Brian Ambrose wrote in a report prepared for council.
“The state Constitution provides this transfer of power in regards to ‘municipal affairs,” Ambrose wrote. “As a result, charter cities have certain protections from the whims of overzealous lawmakers.”
Ambrose detailed the pros and cons of Charter City vs. General Law. That segued into a nearly two-hour question-and-answer discussion.
The subject was broached by council in 2009, but went flat when scandal surrounding the city of Bell, a charter city, arose. Many of its officials were being grossly overpaid, The Los Angeles Times first reported.
“The city of Bell tarnished the charter city name, they tarnished a lot of things,” Ambrose said. “And it is a gift that keeps on giving.”
In bringing up what happened in Bell, Murrieta Mayor Doug McAllister said most of the issues that led to the abuse by Bell have since been fixed by the state Legislature.
“It wasn’t the fact that Bell was a charter city that was the problem. The problem was that they abused it,” said Mayor Doug McAllister. “...so we are in a better climate to have that discussion than in 2009.”
The Charter City Movement
New problems faced by many cities, including Murrieta, have prompted a movement among jurisdictions to transition from general law to charter city status, city staff said.
“In just the past four years, the state has deferred payments due to cities, suspended Proposition 1A, eliminated redevelopment and year-after-year approves unbalanced budgets,” Ambrose wrote. “Currently, a (state) measure is on the November ballot seeking to increase revenues through a tax increase in order to balance a budget that will be halfway through the fiscal year...”
Nearly one-fourth of California cities are charters. In Riverside County, these include the cities of Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Norco, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Riverside and Rancho Mirage.
Temecula is also looking into becoming a charter city. According to Murrieta city staff, Temecula recently inquired about possibly joining Murrieta in the effort, for a more regional, comprehensive approach.
Murrieta City Manager Rick Dudley has some experience when it comes to the transition. He was assistant city manager of Vista when in 2007, a charter for the city was approved by 67 percent of voters.
“...We quite frankly had a standing citizens group that was in favor,” Dudley said.
Dudley said within the last 10 years, the main reason cities have transitioned to charters has been the issue of prevailing wages.
Under the state Constitution, charter cities are preempted from paying prevailing state wages—wage levels above those commonly paid in the construction industry as a whole—for public projects.
Ongoing contracts such as landscape maintenance are one example of how the wages set by the city could save Murrieta money, Dudley said. More savings could be seen on larger-scale infrastructure projects, he said.
The ability for charter cities to do this was upheld by the California Supreme Court in July when it ruled in favor of the city of Vista in a complaint filed by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California AFL-CIO. The union had sought to require the city to pay prevailing wages for its contracted work.
Charter cities also have greater flexibility in handling public bids and contracts.
“It is to build an economy, it is to build a revenue base,” Dudley said.
This in turn would enable the city to pump more money into its public services such as police, fire, and parks and recreation.
“It is not really about prevailing wage, we are not trying to cut the unions out of this,” said Mayor Pro Tem Rick Gibbs. “It is about a fair wage and affordable price. This is truly about local control. It is primarily to keep the state out of our bank accounts...the state likes to pick our pockets.”
Another plus, city staff said, would be the ability to offer incentives to larger employers interested in coming to Murrieta. This would contribute to the city’s priority of increased economic development.
“At the end of the day...when you have local control it allows us to put our minds together and get more creative,” said Councilman Alan Long. “We need to be as competitive as possible and this provides an avenue to do that.”
City staff cautioned under charter city status, cities may govern municipal affairs but must still adhere to some state laws.
For instance, a charter city may not exempt itself from the Brown Act—open meetings—or other transparency-related laws.
In addition, Ambrose wrote that many of the recent charters provide anti-City of Bell measures, mostly due “to the fraudulent situation that forever changed local government employee compensation and transparency.”
Council Gives Support
Still, city council members indicated they were in favor of pursuing the possibility.
“This is a good opportunity for us to look at better control of our community,” said Councilman Randon Lane. “I would like to see...Murrieta have an opportunity to vote on this...I hope staff moves in this direction.
Most agreed more citizens would vote on the measure if it were placed on a general election ballot, such as in November 2014.
Councilwoman Kelly Bennett called it another shift to “self-reliance” for the city.
“We are not good at the status quo,” Bennett said. “(In Murrieta) we tend to make things happen for us...so it falls in line with what we do. I think the change factors are significant and for those factors I would support it.”
While some were concerned about the cost of putting the issue on a future ballot, which could range from $18,000 to more than $100,000, they thought it could be a wise investment.
“I would have to quantify that with one word: opportunity,” McAllister said. “It is an entrepreneurial way of doing business as government...I am hoping folks will agree and we move on to a better Murrieta.”