Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Forget Prop 32, Costa Mesa’s Measure V is the real union fight

Labor unions are spending upwards of $70 million to defeat California’s Proposition 32.  But they’re spending more per voter to stop another anti-union measure in Orange County.

Organized labor and its supporters are spending nearly $500,000 to defeat Measure V in Costa Mesa.  That’s about $8.50 per registered voter, compared to $3.80 against Prop 32.

Why?

Measure V, placed on the ballot by conservative members of the City Council, would change Costa Mesa from a general law city to a charter city governed by its own constitution.  The switch would free Costa Mesa from state laws that limit its ability to privatize jobs.  Labor unions worry that other cities would follow suit.

“One of our biggest concerns is that it would spread to other cities,” said Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

The proposed charter would end a requirement to pay prevailing union wages to city workers and would require voters to approve any increase in pensions.

Here’s a link to the charter language:

http://www.costamesaca.gov/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=7432

City Councilman Jim Righeimer, the measure’s architect, said one study found the city could save $1.3 million by partly privatizing park maintenance, for example.  He said that would allow the city to outsource eight of 19  parks department jobs, and, more importantly, to move the employees off its pension plan.

“The cost of our employees is out of hand,” Righeimer said.  “When you are a charter city, you have so much more flexibility.”

Labor leaders in Costa Mesa have said that city leaders  exaggerate the city’s financial problems and that ideology drives their effort.

For more than a year, Costa Mesa has been ground zero in the fight over privatizing city services to eliminate pension obligations.   In August, a state appellate court upheld an injunction that prohibits the city from outsourcing most jobs – noting that Costa Mesa is a general law city.  Earlier, the city had issued pink slips to nearly half its 450 employees.

“The court’s decision has enormous significance for public employees throughout California,” said attorney Jonathan Yank representing the Costa Mesa City Employees Association. “It clarified that general law cities and counties cannot contract with private entities to perform municipal functions, except under a narrow set of circumstances.”

City officials have said the ruling still allows them to outsource some functions, including its jail.  Councilman Righeimer said that would save $3 million over five years.

If voters approve Measure V, Costa Mesa could privatize even more functions, the councilman said.

Costa Mesa, like many Orange County cities, tilts GOP.  40% of its voters are registered Republicans. 29% are Democrats. 24% are independents.

But some Republicans oppose Measure V.

“It’s like giving the City Council a pill that gives them super powers,” warned Robin Leffler of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government.

Leffler pointed to one section of the proposed charter that would allow the council to approve contracts in any amount without competitive bidding, saying, “it puts politicians in control of the purse strings with no accountability.” 

Righeimer said there are safeguards in the charter that require the council to act with fiduciary responsibility.  “We’re not looking at outsourcing everything," he said. "We’re just looking at what makes sense.”

Righeimer and his allies have raised about $50,000 – a tenth of what their opponents have raised.

But he said that if Measure V doesn’t pass, the council’s conservative majority plans to round up more support and try again next year.

"More and more cities will become charter cities over the next 10 years,” Righeimer predicted.

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