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Escondido Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz, left, and Mayor Sam Abed discuss what power the City Council could have. Photo by Rachel Stine
Escondido Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz, left, and Mayor Sam Abed discuss what power the City Council could have. Photo by Rachel Stine

Amount of power for council under debate

ESCONDIDO — Discussing the latest draft of a city charter proposal, which now addresses land use, planning, and zoning, City Council members debated how much power they should and could be granted in Escondido by a city charter and how the city should address exempting the city from prevailing wage.

By transitioning from a general law city to a charter city, Escondido’s city government would have more control over local affairs. Rather than following state mandates, city council would be able to set its own laws to govern municipal affairs including how the city government is organized, local election procedures, filling vacancies of city positions, establish new bidding rules for city contracts, and exempt itself from prevailing wage requirements.

Charter cities are still bound by certain state laws about municipal affairs, including laws about open city meetings. Matters that do not fall under local control, including traffic speeds, will continue to be determined by the state.

Escondido voters opposed a charter proposal put before them in 2012. Now the majority of the City Council is supporting placing a new city charter draft proposal on the November ballot for a new vote.

The new charter proposal does not mention voting districts, which have already been established in the city by a court order, or prevailing wage due to ongoing legal battles that will eventually determine how charter cities’ can be exempt from the state’s wage requirements. The new proposal also allows for council vacancies to be filled within 60 days instead of 30 days.

In response to public comments, the draft charter proposal was updated to order that the city must abide by state laws regarding land use, planning, and zoning, specifically the city’s requirement to adhere to its General Plan and established zoning ordinances.

Updated estimates conclude that putting the charter to voters this fall will cost the city between $20,000 and $30,000.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Assistant City Attorney Jennifer McCain emphasized that charter cities are not able to change laws at the will of city council. She said that while a city charter does grant the local government broad control over municipal affairs, the city is still governed by some state laws and municipal codes.

“It is not as if we would have the authority to make up laws,” she said.

Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz raised concerns that even with the restrictions of state laws and existing city codes, the city government’s heightened control over local matters could enable the city to circumvent voter opinions.

“We have a lot more freedom to bend the rules or create our own rules,” she said, expressing that city council is able to amend the municipal code without a public vote.

“I would not want to have more power. I would want to create a document that would keep the city safe no matter who is running it.”

Mayor Sam Abed, Councilmember John Masson, and Councilmember Ed Gallo, supporters of the city charter, argued that the voters have the ultimate input on policy decisions by electing city council to represent their views and make those decisions for them.

Councilmember Michael Morasco was absent from the meeting.

Abed said that with the charter, “You are empowering more of the citizens to elect the mayor and city council to make policies and decisions.”

“Better to have someone in Escondido making a decision for us rather than someone in Sacramento,” he said.

“I don’t understand why you would want a bureaucratic state without local representation (making local decisions),” said Masson. “You have no voice in the state, literally, no voice.”

He added that residents should want the representatives they elect to council to have more power over local issues. He said that if residents are unhappy with the decisions city council is making, then they should elect different people.

“If someone is coming up here and screwing up, then they’re out of here,” Masson said. “We’ll see what happens in November. If I’m doing a good job I’ll be back and if I’m not, I’ll be out.”

Abed and Masson also expressed that establishing a city charter now could make way for Escondido to exempt itself from prevailing wage laws after the matter is decided by the courts.

They said that without prevailing wage requirements, the city would receive more competitive bids on projects and could make its own decisions about fair pay.

Diaz pointed out that if the city exempted itself from prevailing wage, it could lose more funds in state grants than it would save due to recent legislation that allows the state to withhold money from cities that do not follow prevailing wage.

Unlike previous hearings on the city charter proposal, few residents spoke before the City Council. The three commenters who spoke voiced opposition to the charter and the added control it would give city council.

“You are writing yourself a big blank check to do whatever you want to do,” said Don Green to the City Council. “That charter is giving you all of the power.”

City Council will determine whether the charter will be placed on November’s ballot at is June 18 meeting.