ESCONDIDO — Local residents expressed opposition to and confusion about City Council’s proposition to place a revised charter city proposal on the November ballot during a public hearing on Wednesday.
Escondido is currently considered a general law city and bound by the state’s general law in regards to local affairs.
Charter cities, like Oceanside, Carlsbad, and other cities throughout San Diego County, are granted greater local control based on the idea that a city knows how to address its own needs better than the state. Charter cities have authority over their own municipal affairs, including form of government, elections, term limits, and zoning.
Escondido voters denied City Council’s original proposal to become a charter city in 2012.
But in light of significant changes within the city since then, the majority of City Council is working towards placing a revised proposal on the ballot again this November.
City Council is in the midst of holding public hearings to gather local feedback and input on the conditions and changes to city government allowed by the draft charter city proposal.
At the April 9 hearing held during the City Council meeting, almost all of the dozen speakers spoke against the charter.
“I remind you that in 2012 the residents of Escondido defeated the charter,” said Chris Nava, the president of the Escondido Democratic Club. “It is not necessary and in my opinion, it’s risky.”
“We went though this charter exercise in 2012, and I think substantial taxpayer money was spent on it. How many times do we have to say no before you give up?” said one woman.
Most speakers raised concerns about the types of power that would be granted to City Council by becoming a charter city. They expressed fears that a charter would allow council to change zoning and land use without abiding to the General Plan, manage city finances without regulation, and award contracts without competitive bidding.
Several commenters referred to the city of Bell, a California charter city where five former City Council members were recently found guilty of stealing public funds by granting themselves exorbitant salaries.
Responding to questions from the public and City Council, assistant city attorney Jennifer McCain stated that a charter city does not allow city council to ignore the general plan, current city municipal codes, and numerous state laws.
“We can’t circumvent all of those things just because we are a charter city,” she said.
Four City Council members asserted that becoming a charter would not give excessive, exclusive power to the council, but would allow the city rather than the state to have more control over its local affairs.
“What power is the City Council going to have to rob its citizens of their current rights?” Councilmember Michael Morasco said in response to public comments. “For the life of me, I can’t understand what those concerns are.”
These councilmembers also claimed that voters rejected the original 2012 charter proposal mainly because it required City Council to be voted by districts and not at large.
Escondido was recently divided into voting districts for all future city council elections as the result of a lawsuit.
Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz said she was against the charter proposal because it has the potential to be abused by future city council members.
“I’d rather be working on something else, quite frankly, because there isn’t a significant, immediate advantage (to becoming a charter city),” she said.
Councilmember John Masson, a supporter of the charter proposal, asserted that the public has a lot of misconceptions about the charter.
“A lot of folks don’t understand what this (the charter) is or how we’re going to deal with it,” he said. “We (City Council) can’t go willy-nilly and start changing things unless it says so in the charter.”
When attendees at the meeting began muttering disagreements to his statements, Masson shrugged and said, “If you don’t like what we’re doing, vote us out of office.”
The audience applauded.
Despite differing views, both City Council and residents agreed that they needed more information about what is and is not permitted under the current draft of the charter city proposal.
City staff agreed to providing more information on the city’s website.
“We owe you an answer for every issue you have whether we agree with it or not,” said Mayor Sam Abed.