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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Charter City Proposal Moves Forward

In November of 2006, the voters of Davis passed an advisory vote to ask the city to look into creating choice voting. Choice voting, otherwise known as instant runoff asks voters to rank their preferences of candidates and office holders in order to determine the winner.

However, in order for a city in California to enact a choice voting system, the city must go from a general law city to a charter city. A charter gives the city more flexibility to enact any number of laws--depending on what is contained within the charter.
"There are two types of cities in California – charter and general law. Charter cities follow the laws set forth in the state’s constitution along with their own adopted “charter” document. General law cities follow the laws set forth by the state legislature. Charter cities still follow the laws of the state’s constitution, which include constitutional amendments like Proposition 13 (cap on property taxes) and Proposition 218 (the right to vote on taxes), but a charter gives a city more local authority over municipal affairs in areas not considered to be statewide matters. Of California’s 478 cities, 109 are charter cities."
By a 4-1 vote last night, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson dissenting, the Davis city council directed city staff and the city attorney to complete an analysis of a draft charter and to return to the City Council by the end of March.

At that point, the City Council could place the charter measure on the ballot before the voters in November.

This particular charter is brief and broad. There are a number of specific elements that these charters can contain. However, the subcommittee of Lamar Heystek and Stephen Souza chose to continue current law and practices with one exception--granting a future city council the authority to create a choice voting system.

This is something important to stress. The charter does not itself create choice vote. The subcommittee had that option and could have written into the charter a choice voting system. Instead they have made such a system possible but have left that decision to future councils.

While much of the discussion has rightly focused on choice voting itself, I think a full discussion of charter cities is in order. There were good questions that were raised last night by both council and the public about them.

One of the keys arose from Councilmember Don Saylor--why are only one-fourth of the cities in California Charter Cities? Have there really only been four or five new Charter Cities since 1992? We have heard of the advantages of Charter Cities, but what are some of the disadvantages?

The last one in particular did not gain a lot of answers, but one thing that was pointed out was the ability of cities with charters to circumvent prevailing wage law and collective bargaining. The council could write into its charter stronger protections for those, but that is something to be wary of. As is the general notion that there may be other weaknesses that city staff and the subcommittee have not come up with just yet.

I went into the discussion last night neutral on the issue of a charter city. I left the meeting last night leaning toward supporting it having some of my concerns assuaged. I think both Councilmember Heystek and Souza did a very good job of keeping the charter itself simple and easily understandable.

Where I am not 100 percent sold is that I would like a better accounting of possible pitfalls. Like Councilmember Saylor I would get a better understanding for why only 25 percent or so of cities have charters.

I hope these points are addressed in more detail at a future council meeting.

Finally on the issue of choice voting, I am not 100 percent on that issue as well. I appreciate that we had an advisory vote on Measure L. I think Ruth Asmundson in her dissent raised a good point that that vote was not necessarily a vote in support of creating choice voting but rather a vote in support of exploring the creation of a choice voting system. It is a subtle but important difference.

What I would like to see is a full public debate over it. The implication from this discussion was that it would probably require another ballot measure after the creation of the charter city. I completely agree with that approach as it will allow for a full vetting of the issue. One of my concerns with Measure L is that there was no organized opposition. Some might suggest that in itself indicates support for the concept, but in my view it also prevented there from being a true debate over the strengths and weaknesses of a system.

I am not opposed for choice voting by any means, but I would like to see a full debate where strengths and weaknesses are addressed, including and most specifically an accounting over whether the system has create voter confusion in other jurisdictions that have employed this form of voting.

That will be a discussion for another day. In the meantime, I was pleased with both the discussion and the outcome of this meeting and look forward to future discussions on the charter city proposal in the future.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting