In the fall of 2008, the city put Measure N on the ballot, a charter city measure that would be soundly defeated 54.3 percent to 45.7 percent, about a 2200-vote spread. The chief reason for the measure was to pursue at a later stage a choice voting initiative that had been passed as an advisory vote back in 2006.
Why are we discussing this now? That is actually unclear. There is an information-only item on the consent agenda that provides background and information on a charter city without explaining its purpose or goal.
The item simply states, “The City Council has requested background information on Charter cities, to help inform the upcoming Council goals setting session.”
In 2008, I opposed the charter city. The problem was not the charter city in principle as I recall, but rather that the charter written by the council and city at that time was so vague that it could have allowed good things to be put into the charter, but there was no guarantee. In fact, the council intentionally left out the point of having the charter in the first place – choice voting.
What is a charter city? The staff report explains that there are two types of cities in California – charter and general law – and that Davis is a general law city.
The staff report describes the following: “Charter cities follow the laws set forth in the state’s constitution along with their own adopted ‘charter’ document. General law cities follow the laws set forth by the state legislature.”
It continues, “Charter cities still follow the laws of the state’s constitution, which include constitutional amendments like Proposition 13 (cap on property taxes) and Proposition 218 (the right to vote on taxes), but a charter gives a city more local authority over municipal affairs in areas not considered to be statewide matters.”
It notes that, of California’s 478 cities, 121 are charter cities. Among the list of charter cities include: Berkeley, Chico, Eureka, Grass Valley, Irvine, Merced, Modesto, Napa, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Stockton, among many others.
As one commenter noted yesterday, “This Charter City issue has been discussed in the past and is it was made quite clear by the community on what a bad idea it was and not a good ‘fit’ for Davis.”
That conclusion is, I think, overly broad. What was made clear by the community in 2008, which, by the way, is nearly a decade ago, was that that particular vague and ill-defined charter was not a good fit for Davis. However, as the list of cities indicates, there is no reason why a charter would of necessity be a poor fit for Davis – there is a combination of regional cities that are charter and college towns across the state, from Chico to Berkeley and Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Palo Alto to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
There are progressive communities on this list and very conservative communities. From our standpoint then, the first question would be why would we want a charter city – what are we not able to do now that we want to be able to do?
That question is not well-explained in the staff report.
We get a vague explanation of that here: “A charter city has more ability to customize operations to meet the unique needs of the community, while a general law city is dependent on the state legislature for its power. This increase in the ability for a local community to exercise home rule is the greatest benefit of a charter.
“By establishing a charter, the members of a community are agreeing to a set of standards about how they are going to govern themselves. The charter may be broad or it may be very detailed but it should reflect the community it represents.
“Most communities that have successfully implemented charters within the past 10 to 15 years have had a specific issue that spurred their interest in a charter. Reasons have included increasing a city’s ability to enact rules and regulations related to public works projects and contracts, changing the number of Council members and/or the way that Council members are elected and simply increasing the ability of home rule.”
This last part, a specific issue that spurred their interest – in 2008 it was choice voting. Again, part of the flaw was that the council did not put choice voting into the initial charter that went before the voters. We had no single issue that jumped out at us.
The article that was cited from 2008, co-written by Pam Nieberg, Nancy Price, Don Shor and Rick Entrikin, was a very effective argument against the charter.
That charter gave “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 authors were concerned about a property transfer tax which “is not permitted under state law, but has been adopted by some Charter Cities.”
They concluded, “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.”
They add, “There is no compelling reason to change how we are governed in Davis. There has been no public movement to become a Charter City.”
I tend to fall to the same conclusion now – until it is explained what the purpose of a charter would be, I see no reason to propose a charter. At the same time, while I sound a cautionary note here, the form of the agenda item suggests that any movement toward a charter city is far off and hopefully the council will learn from 2008 and have lengthy community outreach and a well-defined charter and purpose for having such a charter.
—David M. Greenwald reporting