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Friday, July 18, 2008

City Moves Forward with Charter Proposal

It was a 4-1 vote on Tuesday night in favor of the charter. The chief proponents of the charter really wanted a unanimous vote, frankly they were fortunate that they got even four votes.

A charter city is the first step towards allowing the city to enact choice voting. There is a whole lot more they can do with a charter city--both good and bad--but for now it is a very simple charter.

Getting four votes was a chore as it was. Mayor Ruth Asmundson for instance did not want a charter that specified choice voting. So the two main proponents of the measure--Councilmembers Stephen Souza and Lamar Heystek, changed the wording to make the proposed charter very broad and which does not specifically mention choice voting. The council now has to place a separate measure either on the November ballot or a later election to amend the charter and allow choice voting.

Given those changes, Mayor Ruth Asmundson was on board.

Next you had Councilmember Sue Greenwald. She was not that concerned either about the city charter or choice voting. However, she would not support a charter that allowed for binding arbitration.

Just last month, the city of San Luis Obispo, the town where I grew up, was placed in huge bind due to binding arbitration. An Oakland-based arbitrator awarded substantial raises to San Luis Obispo police officers, dispatchers, an evidence and field technicians through binding arbitration.

The San Luis Obispo City Council has no power to change the decision, and instead will have to come up with a long list of expected cuts in order to balance their budget.

According to the July 13, 2008 San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune:
"Under the arbitrator’s decision, San Luis Obispo police officers at the highest step on the salary schedule will make $102,600 by January, before overtime pay. That will make them the highest paid public safety officers in the county and most of the Central Coast. Top dispatchers will make $76,780 before overtime.

The raises amount to 27 percent for officers and 33 percent for non-sworn staff over four years. Finance Director Bill Statler said the raises will actually be 30 percent and 37 percent after compounding one salary increase upon another over the length of the contract.

All five council members have decried the arbitration process, saying San Luis Obispo’s budget health should not be left to an unelected outsider with no stake in city affairs."
San Luis Obispo is a charter city but it is one of only 25 cities in the state with binding arbitration. The voters in the year 2000 approved binding arbitration with a 57% vote after a long campaign by police and firefighters to include it in the city's charter. The sitting city council in 2000, strongly opposed binding arbitration and put an opposing measure on the ballot that same year which was rejected with a 61 percent vote.

Davis City Councilmember Sue Greenwald noted San Luis Obispo during her comments on Tuesday. It will be interesting to note if something similar could happen in Davis by initiative despite the efforts of the Davis City Council.

The lone dissenter was Don Saylor. Don Saylor has been consistent on this issue, questioning whether there was a reason that we need to do this right now and calling it a solution in search of a problem.

Councilmember Heystek responded that the fact that the state was looking to encroach on local control was reason enough to do it.

In my own opinion, I remain somewhat stuck in the middle. In principle, I like the ideal of home rule. I am a believer in local control. There are a number of things that we can do with a charter city that we could without. On the other hand, what happened in San Luis Obispo is a warning that we need to take seriously. We can build protections into the charter, but at the same time, those protections can be undone by a vote of the people.

Toward the bigger issue, I remain circumspect about the idea of choice voting. I respect a lot of people who are strongly in support of it, but I really do not see the added advantage that they do. Frankly, I think a lot of the points that Don Saylor makes on this issue are worth considering. The biggest electoral reform that we need may not be choice voting, but a combination of district elections and campaign finance changes. I don't see a lot of election outcomes likely to be changed by choice voting nor do I necessarily think they should be changed. Don Saylor made the point during a previous discussion, that the moment that choice voting changes the outcome of an election, we may have a huge problem on our hands.

None of these are reasons why I oppose either the city charter or choice voting at this time. Only to say that I remain skeptical of the added value of choice voting and cautious about the possibility of unintended consequences for the charter city.

If the election were held tomorrow, I would probably support the charter city. But these concerns are real.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting