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Kirk Effinger: Escondido charter coming back to life?

Certain people in Escondido who have an almost pathological hatred of Mayor Sam Abed and those members of the city council who make up the majority on it — Ed Gallo, John Masson, and Mike Morasco — are sounding the alarm over what they perceive to be nascent attempts to resurrect a charter effort once thought dead. I have to wonder whether it is the message or the messenger that engenders so much vituperation on the subject.

I have been openly critical in the past over the way the notion of making Escondido a charter city has been handled but, living with the experience and the way chartering was handled in San Marcos, I disagree with critics that — taken as a whole — charters are a bad idea.

It’s hard for me to reconcile the idea that it’s better to have Sacramento essentially telling a city how it should be run rather than having a measure of local control that gives residents and taxpayers credit for knowing what is best for them. This is especially the case when you consider the disaffection of a large number of voters over the way their state has been run by Sacramento politicians these past several years.

The issue of prevailing wage requirements is a motivating factor in many cities’ decisions to charter. That doesn’t mean it is the only factor, but it’s a legitimate concern since restricting governments to paying prevailing wage can introduce higher costs for taxpayers on city projects.

These costs are not limited to paychecks, either.

San Marcos Unified School District, which, like all public school districts is required to pay prevailing wages on all projects, is paying over a quarter-million dollars to consultants on the San Marcos High School reconstruction project whose sole role is monitoring the payrolls of every contractor involved for compliance. (To be accurate, it’s really the district’s taxpayers who are paying.)

Properly drafted, a charter can put in place better protections and opportunities for taxpayers, including the bugaboo opponents typically trot out over councils setting their own pay.

Charters can also open the door for creative revenue opportunities that may not be available under the state’s General Law provisions.

If they want broad support, it would be a real good idea for the city council to at least hold a couple of workshops to hear what citizens might want. This gives the city an opportunity to present their case for the charter and quite possibly get an idea or two that hasn’t been considered.

Trotting out the anti-prevailing wage argument as if it is the sole reason to have a charter is, as has already been proven, a recipe for disaster. Since newly enacted state law requires charter cities to follow the same position on prevailing wages as general law cities, the suggestion invites yet another Escondido trip to the courts. Most importantly, it is simply not a strong enough argument to overcome the antipathy of organized labor and their allies. If the Escondido City Council wants voter support for a charter, they should also ask for their help.

Kirk W. Effinger was born in San Diego and raised in Southern California. He and his family have been residents of San Marcos for the past 30 years.  His opinion columns have appeared regularly in the North County Times and, later, the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1995. He can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @kirkeffinger