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Point/Counterpoint: Measure A - Measure may do unintended harm

Point/counterpoint: Measure A
By: Paul S. Berger, guest columnist
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Measure A, which will appear on the June primary ballot, would convert Auburn from a general law city to a charter city. It is disturbing that voters are being asked to weigh in on such a serious change to city government in a primary election where turnout is typically light and voter interest lags. Moreover, while the measure may seem fairly innocuous, there are hidden dangers and the potential for unintended harmful consequences. Proponents say a charter will save money on building a new sewer system by avoiding the state requirement that cities must pay “prevailing wages” on public projects, and will allow volunteers to serve Auburn without fear of union intimidation. The issue of whether a charter city can avoid paying prevailing wages is now before the California Supreme Court, and a decision may come before the election. If the charter cities lose the case, this entire rationale collapses. But even if charter cities win, this may lead to new problems. According to a memo written to the city council by the Auburn City Attorney, Monterey discovered that “a non-prevailing wage environment led to inexperienced and underfunded contractors winning contracts for certain projects.” As a result, Monterey reinstated a prevailing wage requirement on more complex projects. Can you imagine what might happen if, years after completion, a wastewater facility built for Auburn by inexperienced contractors with cheap labor suddenly developed serious defects? Who would be held accountable? Paying prevailing wages ensures that municipal projects are done right by reputable contractors, thus saving taxpayers money in the long run. The claim of protecting volunteers is also misguided. Last September, a law was passed exempting city volunteers from the prevailing wage law requirement. While the law contains a “sunset” expiration date of 2017, this is not unusual. An identical law expired in 2012 and was renewed for another five years. Besides, does it make sense to change the entire structure of city government to address a problem that may or may not exist five years from now? Although charter proponents claim it would give Auburn more control over its own affairs, in truth it could lead to the exact opposite. A charter amendment can be placed on the ballot by the signatures of a mere 15 percent of the electorate. In Auburn, that is a strikingly small number of people. This could lead to unseemly campaigns by outsiders seeking to “buy” a charter amendment by vastly outspending local citizen groups. Enacting a charter could also open the door to corruption. California courts have ruled that the state constitutional prohibition on gifts of public funds to individuals or corporations does not apply to charter cities. A small charter city that is not overseen by state regulators could be susceptible to fraud and dishonesty by an elite group of local politicians. If you think these fears are exaggerated, look at the list of California cities that have become riddled with corruption or filed for bankruptcy: Bell, Vernon, Vallejo, and perhaps soon, Stockton — all charter cities. Bell squandered millions on exorbitant pensions and salaries for city officials. Vallejo got in trouble when special interests rammed through a costly binding arbitration amendment to its city charter. Stockton fell victim to years of profligate spending by an out-of-control city council, controlled by developers. Auburn has been operating just fine as a general law city since its incorporation in 1861. Be skeptical of folks who say we suddenly need a charter to protect home rule and save money. Enacting a charter for Auburn is a cure that would be far worse than any imagined disease. Paul Berger is an appellate attorney who recently retired from the California Court of Appeal after 30 years of service. He has been a resident of Auburn since 2001.