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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Guest Commentary: Measure N Opponents Speak Out Against City Charter

by Pam Nieberg, Nancy Price, Don Shor, Rick Entrikin

The City Council has placed on the November ballot a Charter, Measure N, for the City of Davis. We are being asked to make a fundamental change in how we are governed. Under a Charter, we are no longer subject to state laws and regulations that have served us and other California cities well for many years. Rather, we would be governed at the will of the council majority in all aspects that deal with municipal affairs.

Davis is a “General Law” city, governed by the general laws of the state. More than 75% of California’s cities are General Law cities. Fewer than 25 % are Charter Cities. Individual Charters vary in length, detail and scope of issues addressed. Most are detailed documents and were adopted to address specific problems or issues in the specific jurisdiction. The proposed City Charter, drafted by two members of the City Council, is one page, does not address any specific issue, contains vague language, and gives broad powers to only five elected officials.

The proponents claim a Charter would give more power to the people, but this is not borne out in the Charter language. The Charter specifically states in part:
“The City shall have all powers possible for a city to have under the Constitution and laws of the State of California as fully and completely as though they were specifically enumerated in this Charter. The City shall have the power to make and enforce all ordinances and regulations with respect to municipal affairs, subject only to restrictions and limitations provided for in this Charter, and with respect to other matters subject to applicable general laws. Concerning municipal affairs, this Charter shall supercede all inconsistent laws.” And “The legislative power of the City shall be vested in the City Council, and in the people through the power of initiative and referendum, as provided for in the California Constitution.”
Clearly, this language gives power to the City Council to adopt or abolish ordinances and regulations with no restrictions, as none are included in the Charter. Future amendments to the Charter itself would require a vote of the people. However, the Charter gives future councils the power to adopt ordinances without a vote of the people in certain instances where it is not currently allowed. The “power” given to the people, to resort to referenda and initiatives, is already our right. Moreover, this Charter contains no specific recommendations relevant to municipal affairs.

Because the Charter is non-specific, we cannot determine what its impacts might be. Many arguments for the Charter have been proposed including that it could allow us to adopt Choice Voting, establish an assessment district to finance solar infrastructure, levy certain types of taxes not permitted by State law, and protect current city land use provisions.

ORIGINAL GOAL: CHOICE VOTING. In 2006, the people of Davis approved an advisory vote to allow us to “consider” Choice Voting. There has been no substantive public discussion of Choice Voting since. Our city attorney has confirmed that if this Charter is adopted, the Council would have the power to implement Choice Voting without a further vote of the people. Such a fundamental change in how we elect our representatives requires a thorough discussion and should be a decision left to the people. This discussion should occur prior to adopting a Charter that would permit implementation of Choice Voting. The Charter should also contain language that clearly states that Choice Voting would be permitted and should provide enough information for the electorate to make an informed decision.

ASSESSMENT DISTRICTS AND TAXES: Charter City status is not necessary for establishing a solar installation assessment district. Prior to 2008, the use of Assessment Districts for this purpose was permitted only to Charter Cities. However, in 2008, the state enacted legislation that permits General Law cities to implement assessment districts to fund solar power infrastructure.

There also has been talk regarding assessing a new tax in the form of a property transfer tax. This type of tax is not permitted under state law, but has been adopted by some Charter Cities (though this has been challenged). A property transfer tax is a tax on the seller, and sometimes the buyer, upon the sale of real property. This tax would unfairly harm seniors, who want to sell and downsize or move to be near their children, as well as young families, who want to sell to move up in the market to a larger home. This tax and others not currently permitted under state law could be adopted if this Charter passes.

DEVELOPMENT AND PLANNING: Proponents have argued that the Charter could be used to protect our progressive growth policies in Davis. They have threatened that the State might decide at some point to overturn these policies, and that including them in the Charter would protect them. However, the State has the power in any case to pass laws that are “issues of statewide concern” that would govern all cities, whether Charter or General Law. Some proponents argue that we can use the Charter to protect Measure J (the right to vote on changes in land use from agricultural to urban uses) by amending the Charter to include it without a sunset clause, thereby protecting it permanently. We don’t need a Charter to do this. We can place Measure J, without a sunset, on the ballot right now, if we wish to permanently protect it.

CONCLUSION: The Council acted hastily in placing this on the ballot. Such a fundamental change in how we are governed requires a thorough public discussion on whether or not we want a Charter and what we want it to address. The proponents argue that once the Charter passes we could then have this public discussion. Shouldn’t we have this discussion first?

There is no compelling reason to change how we are governed in Davis. There has been no public movement to become a Charter City. The proponents of the Charter should start over and create an open, inclusive community-wide process to determine whether we want a Charter and then, if we agree, work with the people to produce a document that addresses specific public policy issues or community problems, not a vague, non-specific document that could result in serious consequences for our City.

Please join us in voting NO on Measure N.