The idea of changing Buellton to a “home-rule” city is on hold again after City Council members decided to set up a workshop for more discussion about a draft plan.
Mayor Judith Dale and other council members said they need more time to study the proposal and particularly to be educated about issues surrounding prevailing-wage laws.
In public comment at the council’s meeting on Jan. 24, representatives from three trade union groups told the council about the benefits of prevailing wages, such as getting work done by better-trained laborers and tradesmen.
Buellton and most other California municipalities are “general law” cities under the state Constitution. Unlike a general law city, a charter city can adopt laws that are different from general state laws to meet its specific needs, and in many cases charter cities are not required to pay the official “prevailing wage” to contractors for public works projects.
Governing a city by its own charter is often called “home rule.”
Charter cities in Santa Barbara County include Solvang, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, and there are 121 in the state, according to the League of California Cities.
The change to a charter city would require voter approval of a measure that could appear on the November 2014 ballot. The date, time, and location of the council’s next workshop have yet to be determined.
In August, an eight-member citizens advisory committee, formed earlier in the year, unveiled the proposal to the council for consideration and approval of the draft document.
Committee members are Ron Anderson, Patty Armor, Doug Bristol, Dick Evert, Lisa Figueroa, Fred Luna, Brad Michel and Tom Widroe.
The goal of the charter is to give city residents more local control, according to the committee. However, council members agreed Aug. 23 to give themselves more time to review the proposal before deciding whether to move the process forward.
If the council approves the wording of the charter, it is expected to appear on the ballot Nov. 4, 2014. Already set to appear on that ballot are the council seats now held by Dale, Ed Andrisek and John Connolly.
Adoption of a charter must be approved by a simple majority of voters, who also must approve before any changes are made in the future.
Two public hearings, as required by state law, and formal approval of the resolution for the ballot are tentatively scheduled for February and April of 2014, according to City Clerk Linda Reid, and the City Council could decide in May to put the question on the 2014 ballot.
Councilwoman Holly Sierra said the draft charter needs “more time and thought,” and she asked for a complete description of a general law city versus a charter city.
The charter proposal contains “general wording,” said Councilman Leo Elovitz, who said he’d like to get input from representatives of neighboring charter cities.
City Manager John Kunkel said the committee wants voters to be comfortable with the measure and, if the council wants to have a dialogue with unions, there is no rush.
“There’s plenty of time,” he said.
Among the advantages of being a charter city, the city could potentially save from 15 to 30 percent on projects such as road maintenance and repair, and water and sewer upgrades, because of not having to pay prevailing wages as general law cities do, according to the committee.
For example, the city spent $1.8 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year on public works projects. Based on 20 percent savings if Buellton was a charter city, the savings would have been $360,000, according to the committee’s “Question and Answers” handout.
In addition, a charter city can choose to give preference to local businesses.
Prevailing wage laws do not apply to materials and equipment, and even a charter city must pay them if certain state or federal funds are involved.
Tim Bennett of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 413 said Solvang, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria continue to pay prevailing wages despite their charters and “get quality workers” on their projects. Not paying prevailing wages, he said, doesn’t save money because the work quality is lower.
Echoing Bennett’s comments, Steven Weiner of the Tri Counties Building and Construction Trades Council said prevailing wages mean that the city will be hiring better trained, safer, and more experienced workers. He also said his group has not supported charter city initiatives without prevailing wages.
In November, a charter city effort that would have done away with prevailing wages failed narrowly in Grover Beach.
Describing prevailing wages as “a living wage” for workers, Michael Lopez of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 114 said it is reasonable to keep prevailing wages, and doing away with them is not a “catch all” solution for municipal financial woes.
Instead, he said, it can lead to bankruptcy.
Stockton and San Bernardino are among the state’s charter cities to declare bankruptcy.
Lopez encouraged the council to educate themselves on prevailing wages by talking to building trades groups.
Speaking for the charter city committee, Figueroa said all the “pros and cons” of a charter city were discussed when writing the proposal, and the idea behind not paying prevailing wages was not part of trying to get the “lowest deal.” Rather, it is meant to keep jobs and money local, he said.
While the council would not gain any additional authority, the charter proposal suggests that the mayor and vice mayor positions last for two years instead of the current one-year terms that rotate among council members. Committee members said that structure would allow more consistency on the many committees the mayor is appointed to serve on.
A vote by the council would continue to be the selection process for mayor. By contrast, when Solvang voters adopted a charter in 2008, they also chose to directly elect their mayor.
Councilman Ed Andrisek said he would like to see a proposal for the mayor and vice mayor to be directly elected to two-year terms as a separate ballot initiative.
Andrisek and Sierra disagreed on the benefits of a two-year mayor term. She backed the committee members’ proposal.
Connolly, who is the vice mayor, said he prefers the current rotation process because it gives all the council members a chance to be mayor within their four-year terms.
During a February 2012 special meeting, council members agreed to form the committee, which met several times to draft the ballot measure.
A year earlier, in March 2011, the council had given the same direction to staff to form a charter city committee, but no one came back with a list of appointees.