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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Silence on Measure N--Is the Charter City Initiative Doomed?

The silence was suddenly broken this morning. The focus in the city of Davis has been almost exclusively on either the Presidential election or the Parcel Tax. There has been some talk about the State senate Race. The Assembly race is of course safely in hand for Mariko Yamada. However, there is another big issue before Davis voters on November 4--whether or not Davis should become a Charter City.

You would not know it from anything we have seen or heard. Later this week most likely, the Vanguard will have a guest commentary that comes out against Measure N featuring some prominent Davisites. As many will recall, on August 24, 2008, Davis City Councilmember Lamar Heystek had a guest commentary in support of Measure N--the Case for home rule.

On July 23, 2008, we had the Councilmember on Vanguard Radio talking about the Charter City.

This morning, however, the silence on the issue has been broken with articles in both today's Davis Enterprise and Sacramento Bee. Nevertheless, given the quiet nature of the campaign, the lack of ground swell of support, and the uncertainly facing many residents about the impact of the measure, it seems highly unlikely that the measure will pass.

The Davis Enterprise article is in fact called, "Effects of a Davis Charter is Unknown."

But more than that, two years ago, there seemed to be a strong grassroots movement in support of choice voting in Davis. In order to enact choice voting however, the city of Davis must change from general law status, which gives it only the authority granted to it by the state legislature, to charter status.

The charter status would give it far broader powers to make its own rules on a variety of issues including public utilities, elections, revenue, and taxation.

There are some very good things that can come out of a charter city, Davis would not have to rely on Sacramento voters to form its own public utility like it did two years ago with SMUD. Davis could impose state of the art environmental regulation. It could vastly expand open meeting and public record laws. For choice voter fans, it could enact a choice voting system. These are the tip of the iceberg and frankly those who disparage some of these I think are being extremely wrongheaded.

On the other hand, there is a huge downside to a charter city.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald pressed the city council to put language in that would prohibit binding arbitration. The city council did. But here is the tricky thing about the charter, some suggest that the city council has more power under a charter, but I am not sure that is true. The voters also have more power under the charter.

In the town I grew up and where my family still lives, San Luis Obispo, in 2000, as a charter city, public safety employees put a measure on the ballot to enact binding arbitration for labor negotiations. We have spent much time on this blog talking about the power of public safety employees both in terms of bargaining and in terms of elections. They put this on the ballot, bankrolled it, had their members walk for it, and it passed. San Luis Obispo is a charter city.

This is from the October 1, San Luis Obispo Tribune and it shows the depth of the problem:
"The San Luis Obispo City Council filled a $4.8 million budget shortfall on Tuesday night, but not before reiterating its dislike of a binding arbitration agreement with police that forced the emergency meeting...

Although the meeting was not intended to be a forum for discussing the city’s voter-mandated binding arbitration for police and firefighters, council members renewed their complaints that the man-date has stripped them of their budget-making authority and threatened financial ruin for the city.

“Binding arbitration was a huge mistake,” said Councilwoman Christine Mulholland, who vowed to work to overturn the requirement.

Police and firefighters counter that binding arbitration is fair because they do not have the ability to strike as part of their labor negotiations.

In June, an arbitrator gave sworn police officers a 30 percent raise and increased dispatchers’ and other non-sworn police staff’s pay by 37 percent."
Could that happen in Davis? You betcha.

Binding arbitration means that a public employees union can press for arbitration at impasse and whatever the arbitrator rules, is what they get. What happened in San Luis Obispo is the police officers got a 30% payraise this year. That is right, an arbitrator from the bay area awarded them a 30% payraise. That will cost the city $4.8 million. That is their budget deficit this year. That is larger than the Davis School District's budget deficit they were facing this past winter. It is a disaster for the city of San Luis Obispo.

Now, here's what you need to understand, and again, I am not opposing this measure, only telling you what can happen. The Davis City Council put in a measure that protects Davis from binding arbitration. The city councils of the future cannot change that provision. But the voters can. They can do the same thing that happened in San Luis Obispo.

Is that a likely occurrence? No. For one thing, we have San Luis Obispo as a model, that people can use against the sponsors of such a measure, but it can happen.

Again, I want to emphasize, I have not decided how I am going to vote on this measure.

The strongest opponent of the measure is Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor.

Councilmember Saylor told the Sacramento Bee that he thinks the "proposal is too vague and gives voters little idea what their votes would actually do."
"Most charters list some specific services, Saylor said. But this measure, he said, just gives the council broader powers.

A previous provision that talked about choice voting was deleted, he said.

"If it's intended to enact choice voting, we should specify that," he said.

Saylor said he believes moving to choice voting is so important that it should go to a direct vote of the people and not be decided by the City Council."
Councilmember Saylor is also uncomfortable with the broad powers it gives the city council.

He told the Davis Enterprise:
"Someday later, the council could come up with a boutique tax, one that we're not allowed to do in a general law city. Which means the charter is probably premature, and we ought to get our act together before we put it on the ballot."
He continued:
"Saylor said that even if the current council would put choice voting on a future ballot, there are no guarantees that future councils would be so considerate.

"The authority that happens under the charter is the City Council takes on a greater amount of potential authority, and I'm not sure that's such a good idea... I'd like to know specifically - and I think the voters should demand to know - what the charter would do, not what might it do. What, exactly, are we intending to do?"
Now according to Kelly Stachowicz, Deputy City Manager, the charter city does not change anything immediately.

She told the Enterprise:
"What it does is provide the city with flexibility to consider additional options or potential change."
Moreover, after researching dozens of city charters, many look a lot like the one Davis is proposing.
"What we found was that the charters that have passed more recently have been very similar to the approach that Davis has taken... Those charters have been brief and broad. They did not have a whole lot of detail in them about what they wanted to change and alter. In most cases the community stayed the course and passed the charter in order to provide additional flexibility."
The curious thing for me is that in 2006, when the choice voting advisory measure was on the ballot and it passed largely with no organized opposition with 55% of the vote, there was a large grassroots movement behind it.

This year, with the step to make choice voting operational, is there a large grassroots movement behind it? All I have seen are Stephen Souza and Lamar Heystek, the principal proponents on council, leading a small and informal campaign on the measure. There does not seem to be energy behind it.

My sense from the response to these articles is that most Davisites have no idea that this measure is on the ballot, no idea what this measure will do, and no idea why they would want this measure in the first place. That is a recipe for defeat at the polls.

I hate to agree with Councilmember Saylor, but I think he has a good point when he argues that the charter is premature and that we ought to have our act together. It seems to me that the charter is premature, that the council was acting largely on its own, and that there is no huge groundswell of support for the charter as there was for choice voting.

I could be completely misreading the situation here, but right now, I just do not see the impetus to pass this measure.

But there are three weeks until the election, I doubt there is much solidified opposition to it either, but right now, I do not think this issue has been sold to Davis, I do not see the money behind to sell it to Davis nor do I see a volunteer network base who will push it through at the grassroots level.

At this point, I think proposal is dead on arrival. But we will see for sure in the coming weeks.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting