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Jim Ruffalo: Look, and look hard, at charter cities issue

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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Fire-proofing the notebook while lauding those Auburnians who went out and did the work we’ve already paid the state and federal governments to do in order to make the neighborhoods safe from fires ... So while we’re at our civic duties, perhaps the good Auburn villagers could take some extra time on another project, namely a thorough and exhaustive look into the question of charter cities. Don’t get me wrong. I do not have a nag in this race. It’s just that becoming a charter city is not a step to be taken lightly. Instead, it should be a journey well mapped out in advance, and then trodden carefully. Few of us would disagree that with the city council election racing toward us, there’s no better time to examine this issue. In fact, it ought to be part of the upcoming campaigns. As usual, there are pluses and minuses, and while the gentle readers no doubt have more than a few examples to offer on either side, allow me to add a few to what, hopefully, becomes a growing list. No doubt atop the list of positives should be that becoming a charter city improves the concept of home rule. The state’s ever-changing constitution says that unless a piece of legislation specifically includes chartered cities and counties in the bill, then those aforementioned entities enjoy a certain amount of self-governance on that very issue. Need an example? Well, consider how one of the city’s proudest efforts — Project Auburn — now is on hiatus, thanks in no small part to labor unions’ insistence on having laws mandating prevailing wage. For the uninitiated, prevailing wage laws demand that most government-financed projects require workers to be paid (here) at a wage commensurate with what union workers make in San Francisco. Doesn’t matter that workers here will take less, therefore driving down the price of local projects. Instead, we have to pay them what they would make had they been toiling in the Bay Area. Incredibly, that rule can be construed as covering volunteer labor, the very sort of which made Project Auburn a reality. Kind of stupid, isn’t it? Granted that there’s a law allowing Auburn and the like to avoid that, but that legislation vanishes in 2012. The current “municipal affair” rule insists that any public works project financed totally by a city government must be covered by prevailing wage. How much could that add to a price tag? A few months ago, City Manager Bob Richardson told me that without prevailing wage rules, Auburn could have saved more than $500,000 on the water treatment plant upgrade. Granted, the minuses I can come up with are a bit esoteric, but should nevertheless be included in the discussion. As I brought up earlier, chartered entities have to be specifically referenced to be covered by state legislation. However, what if that new non-referenced law was a public safety issue? Auburn would have to pass its own ordinance to have that rule on the local books. It could also choose to ignore it, perhaps thus leaving the local citizenry in peril. Then there’s Bell, California. Yes. it’s a charter city, and we all know what happened there, although the story seems to get more horrific each day. Charter cities can place ceilings on local governmental salaries. There are several pieces of legislation winding through the Sacramento labyrinth outlawing such salary shenanigans as seen from Bell. Finally, there’s the fact that charters can be changed by a wealthy group or individual, one with the wherewithal to finance a campaign to make such modifications. A perfect example from a few years ago is Placer County (which is a charter county instead of a general law one) and its Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA). Back then, that group had money and was politically powerful. How much so? Well, the city boundaries of Auburn would be larger had it not been for the DSA and its well-heeled campaign to oppose annexation (and the loss of county deputy jobs which would have accompanied such a move.) On the other hand, a petition to change a charter requires a larger percentage of registered voters than does a similar effort to amend one from a general law entity. Confused? Then perhaps I’m correct in calling for a full discussion. And the sooner and longer, the better.