Escondido Charter: Few Benefits, Many Hazards
by Rick Moore of Escondido Democratic Club
March 17, 2014
City charters offer few benefits and many hazards, according to Kyle Krahel-Frolander, who spoke to Escondido Democrats at their March 2014 meeting. Krahel-Frolander is a Community Outreach Coordinator for Smart Cities Prevail, a California non-profit that provides information, research and education on how prevailing wage standards on public construction projects benefit taxpayers, local governments and working families.
Krahel-Frolander, who hails from Oceanside and worked as an aide to Council member Esther Sanchez when that city changed to charter status, monitors charter city proposals in Southern California.
Most California cities are created under state law and are known as “general law” cities. About one-third of California cities, including most larger cities, switched to charter city status in the past, when there were significant differences between the powers granted to charter cities.
According to Krahel-Frolander, those distinctions have been reduced. "Every single decade that difference has gotten smaller and smaller," he reported. Today, the difference "is very small" Charter status will not protect a city from actions of the state legislature, such as when it ended redevelopment districts and captured their funds to help reduce the state’s budget deficit.
Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and his council member supporters, Ed Gallo, Mike Morasco and Marie Waldron, brought a charter proposal before voters in 2012. That charter was drafted by the construction industry. It failed 53 to 47 percent. Now Mayor Abed is bringing it around for a second try and plans to have it on the ballot in November 2014. There are three opportunities for public input (see details on the EDC Charter City background page) but the document itself will be crafted by the council and city staff. Abed rebuffed requests that a citizens commission write the charter, saying a citizen charter wouldn't contain what he wants.
Lurking in the background is the real motivation the Mayor and conservative Council members want to become a charter city — claims they could save money on construction projects by escaping the "prevailing wage." State law requires that cities pay prevailing wage on any construction project involving state funds. If the city declines, under current state law (Senate Bill 7, passed in 2012), the city loses all state funding — not just on that project, but all state funding from all sources. Several cities have challenged the legislation and a decision is pending, Krahel-Frolander explained.
He also said, however, that claims of savings do not hold up when scrutinized. (See the Smart Cities website for details.) He noted that prevailing wage language is not included in the current charter proposal, but advised Escondidans not to be fooled. “They got smarter” and left it out, he said. He reminded the audience that all a city has to do to gain the powers associated with charter status is pass a charter proposal. Any items specifically mentioned in a proposal are usually there to limit the charter powers. So leaving something out is not only not a protection, it can actually conceal a threat.
More important, Krahel-Frolander said, is what charter status allows. Among new powers are the ability to increase council compensation, levy new taxes and fees, change election arrangements and even to run a deficit. He noted that California cities that have recently declared bankruptcy were all charter cities. General law requires cities to avoid deficits, but “as soon as you become charter, you lose those protections,” he added.
He noted that five California cities are considering charters for 2014. Most of them are small and without their own newspaper — the perfect environment for inattentive voters who can be fooled into approving charter status. Out-of-town funding from construction interests are usually behind the measures. La Mirada, in fact, created a commission to consider a charter and that group decided against it. "They asked 'What does this give us that we don't already have?' and found the answers not very satisfactory," he said.
Krahel-Frolander asked the audience to get involved in the effort to defeat Escondido's charter proposal. He recommended circulating petitions "to show how much support there is out there for NOT going charter." He asked everyone to attend and speak at the upcoming Council workshop and hearings to make their feelings known about the charter. He discussed the call for an elected citizens charter commission, which is now being circulated in Escondido for signatures, saying “it is not done very often” and there are only a few examples of it in California.