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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Guest Commentary: In Support of Measure N

by Stephen Souza and Lamar Heystek

We wish to rebut a recent e-mail in which Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor outlines his argument against Measure N.

Mr. Saylor argues that few cities in California have charters, and the cities that do have charters have more specific ones than what Measure N proposes.

However, the recent trend is that steadily, more and more general law cities are turning to a charter (currently, 112 cities have charters), and in the history of California, no charter city has sought to revert to general law status. Furthermore, charters naturally become more specific with time as the people of charter cities desire to exercise local control more and more fully. Measure N presents a document that asks whether or not the people of Davis wish to have the broader policy latitude that charter city status confers. If their answer is yes, we anticipate that charter will evolve to continue reflecting the community’s specific interests.

Mr. Saylor alleges that Measure N seeks to solve a problem that does not exist.

However, there are problems that exist now, and there will be unforeseen problems in the future, stemming from the state’s stifling of the city of Davis’ power to act in the public’s interest. Measure N provides options for solving current problems such as the unnecessarily excessive cost of upcoming public works projects, including the City’s wastewater treatment plan upgrade. As currently conceived, the upgrade is projected to cost taxpayers over a fifth of a billion dollars. Because the city of Davis lacks a charter, it is precluded from utilizing “design-build delivery,” a streamlined method of planning and construction where the architect and contractor work as a single team.

In the traditional “design-bid-build” model, a project is broken into phases: the city first hires an architect to draft plans, then it selects a construction contractor through the bidding process. In design-build construction, a single group of professionals handles all phases of design and construction under a single contract, potentially speeding up the process, reducing the city’s liability for planning errors and compressing the construction timeline, which in turn saves the people of Davis millions of dollars in water and sewer rates. Failing to recognize the often unnecessary costliness of delivering city services does the taxpayers of Davis a disservice.

Mr. Saylor is wrong about the charter amendment process. Under Measure N, no charter amendment would be implemented without a vote of the people.

We disagree with Mr. Saylor’s assumption that the people of Davis will abuse the charter amendment process – Davisites have historically displayed judiciousness in exercising their current powers of referendum, recall and initiative.

Mr. Saylor ascribes shifting motivations to supporters of a charter.

However, four members of the City Council made clear that in placing Measure N on the ballot, a charter would provide the people of Davis options on issues ranging from local public power financing to local elections to the protection of our local ordinances. A consistent desire to have local control over these issues does not constitute shifting motivations.

Mr. Saylor implies that the charter does not recognize the people’s right to decide on issues such as choice voting.

However, the charter recognizes the people’s purview over all issues. We recognize that the method of electing councilmembers is fundamental matter that the electors – the people of Davis – should decide on. Should they decide to implement choice voting, they may also decide to encode this in the charter.

Let it be clear that Measure N does not automatically establish choice voting. It merely permits choice voting as an option to be considered further, in keeping with the voters’ will on Measure L back in 2006.

Mr. Saylor cites the passage of Assembly Bill 811 as an example of the continued narrowing of the differences between general law cities and charter cities. He argues AB 811 would allow general law cities to implement the same sort of solar assessment district under development by the city of Berkeley. However, Mr. Saylor fails to cite another important piece of legislation in this area: AB 1709, which permits charter cities to pursue the financing of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements for new development through the establishment of a Community Facilities District. The CFD law, AB 1709, has proven to be a more flexible financing tool than the much older AB 811 – the difference will be important as local agencies, public finance professionals and the lending community begin to explore the rapidly-changing area of renewable energy financing. AB 1709 may be less problematic with respect to existing home mortgages than AB 811, which levies the entire principal amount of the assessment at the time the contractual assessment is established. In short, there remain substantive differences between the options we have under a charter and those we have under general law.

Mr. Saylor implies that Measure N attempts to circumvent existing tax laws that otherwise supersede a charter.

This is untrue. Measure N does not propose any new taxes, nor does it lower the threshold for the passage of taxes. Measure N does not make any recommendations about future taxes. In fact, if passed, the charter can be amended to preclude the city from considering certain types of taxes which the state can allow general law cities to consider in the future.

Mr. Saylor opines that state government has no intention of encroaching on such matters as local land use, agricultural preservation and inclusionary housing.

However, history shows that the state has allowed cities to have less and less power, not more. What Mr. Saylor fails to understand that a charter provides a meaningful legal mechanism for preserving a city’s purview over municipal affairs. We agree that a general law city cannot protect itself from the state’s expansion of matters of statewide concern because, by definition, it is at the mercy of the state’s interpretation of municipal affairs. However, a charter does provide a city a more tenable legal avenue – in a court of law – to protect what the people define as municipal affairs. The city of Davis must be prepared to do all it can to preserve its jurisdiction over such matters as local growth control. Since the charter is a more durable document, codifying voter-approved measures in perpetuity in a charter would further reinforce the people’s prerogative with regards to municipal affairs.

Mr. Saylor argues further that there has been no thoughtful or inclusive process by which the city’s governance structure has been considered.

However, the 1994-6 Governance Committee and the 2004-5 Governance Task Force, composed of Davis citizens appointed by two City Councils, both deliberated in public meetings on the issue of a charter and ultimately recommended the type of charter that Measure N proposes.

Finally, Mr. Saylor implies that “Hancock, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the rest” would have argued for something other than Measure N.

No one, not even Mr. Saylor, really knows for sure what they would say. However, they probably would agree that localities have a right and a duty to consider their relationship with higher levels of government, because doing so provides a check and balance on power at all levels. In our opinion, Measure N is a useful step in providing that check.

Thank you for considering our points. We hope this helps you understand our support for Measure N.