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Commentary: Costa Mesa could become an oligarchy

BusinessChicago City HallQuiksilver Incorporated

Businesses, the citizens and the government make the three-legged stool that is Costa Mesa.

But the business leg seems forgotten because its concerns are rarely in print. The proposed charter (Measure V on the November ballot) has sparked many articles and commentaries in the Daily Pilot about citizen and government concerns, but not business concerns. Is this because business people usually shy away from public disputes?

Business owners may be aware of the government-claimed benefits in the proposed charter, but there are subtle downsides of which the business community should be aware. The proposed charter will have a chilling effect on businesses looking for a congenial place to locate.

Costa Mesa has long been a popular place to start and grow businesses. Hurley and Quiksilver are examples. Businesses benefit from being able to rely on a level playing field, and Costa Mesa has traditionally made it easier for business owners to breathe life into their dreams.

Besides the usual bottom-line components — low taxes, low rent, near to the wealth in Newport Beach, near freeways — Costa Mesa has provided a stable, predictable and safe government that people could rely on. Business owners appreciate more than most how important our (small "r") republican principles of government are. These principles are critical to economist Joseph Schumpeter's creative destruction.

Now the city is on a path toward "depends on who ya know" politics. The City Council is sprinting away from the (small "d") democratic process as well as good business practices.

This council has awarded contracts to expensive ($495 an hour) law firms that ballooned past $1 million in a single year, because the normal "do-not-exceed" limits on charges were omitted. Three lawyers from that same firm made handsome contributions to the campaign fund of the de facto leader of the council, but no others, within three months of their contract being approved. Is that now what it takes to get ahead in Costa Mesa?

If voters approve the proposed charter with its Wild West approach to contracting, as few as three councilmen will gain unlimited power to legally award municipally funded contracts to anybody they want without the bother of competitive bidding. This is "no-bid" contracting on steroids. Consequently, it is reasonable to conclude that price and quality will not necessarily win you the contract. Connections will be the better qualification, and connections can be expensive.

And consider land-use variances. Suppose your neighbor wants a variance to modify his business property and is a member of the "in" group, then the council can simply grant the variance without justifying it, since the charter exempts the city from this part of the California Government Code. But if you want a similar variance and are not a member of the in-group, then sorry, Charlie!

The present or future councils could be this arbitrary because the proposed charter is silent about how variances are to be handled. This is in contrast to the clear and definite standards that have protected us as a general law city for 59 years. The playing field has been level all this time.

Bottom line, upon becoming exempt from certain state laws if the proposed charter is approved, City Hall would be a ripe target for favoritism, fraud and corruption to take root and flourish. (Think Chicago politics. Think the cities of Vernon and Bell.)

You could find Costa Mesa narrowing its "friendliness" to a select few businesses, and no others need apply or stay. History tells us this ultimately creates an unsafe, unreliable and unstable place to try to conduct ethical business.

We could see our fine republican city pushed to an oligarchy where only a few elites and their cronies would be running the show. This may have been one of the fears Benjamin Franklin had when, upon being asked after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, "Well, doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?"

He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."

If we continue on the present path toward oligarchy, Costa Mesa's three-legged stool may well end up with a government leg 10 feet long, but the business and citizen legs ground to a stump. Business owners have good reason to be wary of the councilmen's assault on our government of, by and for the people.

City Council critic TOM EGAN lives in Costa Mesa.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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