By Miriam Raftery
“It’s going to save us a lot of money….By not having to pay prevailing wages, this gives us more control over our own destiny.” –Councilman Bill Wells
“I’m concerned about corruption…It is a power grab by a few individuals and the people must say no.” – David Secor, candidate for Congress
May 6, 2012 (El Cajon) – State Senator Joel Anderson hosted a fundraiser last week to raise money for proposition D, a measure that would turn El Cajon into a charter city. While supporters gathered inside praising the plan as a money-saver for the city, outside, protesters carrying ”Stop corruption signs” claimed just the opposite –that Prop D could enable unfair bidding practices, suppress wages, and potentially cost more in the long run through sweetheart deals with developers without public scrutiny.
The measure could also result in forfeit of state funds, since a brand new state law signed by Governor Jerry Brown requires that state funds be cut off to cities that ban project labor agreements, as Prop D proposes to do.
Currently 120 California cities are charter cities, according to the League of California Cities. These range from large cities such as San Diego, which enacted a “strong mayor” form of government using its charter powers, and Los Angeles to small towns including the infamous Bell, California, a town made notorious by corruption enabled by charter status.
If approved by voters, Prop D would eliminate competitive bidding requirements on some public projects and give more power to Council members and the Mayor. Is that a good or a bad idea? A list of comparable powers in charter and general law cities may be viewed here. Here’s what key proponents and opponents of charter cities have to say.
“It’s going to save us a lot of money,” Councilman Bill Wells told East County Magazine. “By not having to pay prevailing wages, it gives us more control over our own destiny.” He believes the measure would allow “fair and open competition” while avoiding “paying inflated wages to a protected class.”
Wells said some studies show 15-20% savings by cities that have adopted charter city status.
In some places, cost savings touted have been based on deceptive numbers.
The website www.smartcitiesprevail.org analyzed cost savings claims made by Oceanside after it became a charter city. The city claimed big savings from reducing prevailing wages on a construction project. However, the city removed a building from its facility capital budget and claimed a $1.4 million “savings.” Investigators concluded that the cost savings claim was a “mirage” and that worse, taxpayers actually got stuck with a higher bill after the general contractor hired to build Harbor Aquatics Center failed to complete work and forced the surety company to take over. http://smartcitiesprevail.org/blog/2012/04/30/missing_in_oceanside/
“Now Oceanside taxpayers are paying construction costs 65% higher per square foot for a sharply scaled down facility that is way behind schedule,” Smart Cities Prevail researchers concluded.
Karen Marie Otter, who has considered running for El Cajon’s Council, observed, “Oceanside is now suffering because of substandard building contracts.”
The most infamous charter city is Bell, California. There, multiple city elected officials and top staff ultimately faced criminal charges for paying themselves exorbitant salaries many times the norm. El Cajon’s Council did add an “anti-Bell” clause to limit salaries. But other concerns remain.
“I’m opposed because it gives too much power that’s unregulated to the City Council,” said Bonnie Price, PhD, a member of the East County Democratic Club. “They want to have substandard wages and the city is the poorest in the county with a 30% poverty rate. That’s ridiculous. This attacks laborers, but not excessive profits.”
It could impact more than construction workers. Police officers in Los Angeles have criticized the city for efforts to cut their pensions under the city’s charter powers.
Otter voiced concerns that El Cajon’s charter would not require competitive bids on projects under $50,000 and suggested that larger projects might be broken into smaller segments to bypass public scrutiny and allow for insider deals.
State Senator Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon), in an invitation to the fundraising event for Prop D held at a private air museum at Gillespie Field, had this to say.
“I support Measure D because of the potential to save the taxpayers of El Cajon million of dollars and protect local control…Your generous contribution will ensure that we continue our efforts on every front to protect taxpayers from out of control government spending.”
Anderson himself, however, has faced scrutiny over illicit campaign contributions from special interests—including Hamann Construction, a developer that has been involved in many construction projects in El Cajon; some community leaders have voiced concerns over the cozy relationship between Hamann and elected leaders in El Cajon. Anderson was fined by the FPPC for accepting contributions over the legal limit from Hamann and others after funds were found to have been funneled through a Republican central committee. He also returned some $20,000 in contributions found by state regulators to be over the state limits.
“I’m concerned about corruption,” said David Secor, Congressional candidate and former Superior Court worker. “If this happens, the Mayor and his friends on City Council will be able to make sweetheart deals with their friends on contracts and other matters without the public even being aware. It essentially would remove the citizens of El Cajon from having significant influence,” he said, adding that the Charter would open up opportunities for “the mayor and friends to line their pockets.”
Secor also pointed out that El Cajon stands to lose significant state funding if the Charter passes, potentially negating money saved on cutting labor costs.
He as a valid point. On October 3, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 922 into law, which prohibits bans on Project Labor Agreements.
El Cajon’s charter states that “the City shall not require any person to become a party to a Project Labor Agreement as a condition of bidding, awarding, or performing a City construction contract.”
While the clause states “except as required by state or federal law as a contracting or procurement obligation” the language leaves the door open for legal challenges and clearly, the city does not have the right to ban Project Labor Agreements under the new state law, unless a judge rules otherwise. The measure is also opposed by the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, which views the measure as a means of suppressing wages and bypassing PLA requirements to hire local workers, instead of workers from outside the community.
Charter cities have other powers. They can create a strong mayor or strong city manager form of government. They can create campaign finance laws and have broader tax assessment powers than a general law city in California (http://www.pvpwatch.com/documents/GeneralLawCityvCharterCity.pdf)
Secor predicted that in the long run, a charter city status for El Cajon “will cost much more.” He concluded, “It is a power grab by a few individuals and the people must say no.”