SAN BERNARDINO’S FINANCIAL CRISIS

Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/29/2012 01:05:37 PM PDT

Special Section: San Bernardino

View: Annotated Charter

SAN BERNARDINO – The city’s pending bankruptcy has revived talk of major changes for the City Charter for the third time since 2000.

As the city moves closer to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing, an immediate focus of debate is whether a charter provision setting a formula for police officers’ and firefighters’ salaries makes financial sense.

But if talk of charter reform builds into a major issue alongside bankruptcy proceedings, any future arguments over San Bernardino’s governing document are likely to lead to questions that go deeper than how city managers negotiate contracts with employees:

Should key officials be elected or appointed?

Should City Council members represent wards or be elected at large?

Should San Bernardino even have a charter at all?

Councilman Fred Shorett, who at Tuesday’s council meeting called for charter reform to have a place on the November ballot, maintained in a Friday interview that residents should consider scrapping San Bernardino’s 46-page charter altogether.

Calling the charter “old and antiquated,” Shorett said San Bernardino should operate as most California cities, which don’t have charters and instead function as general law cities operating under rules established by Sacramento.

“It makes common sense to me and has no political agenda at all,” he said.

Shorett’s preference would be for the city to repeal the charter and operate as a general law city over the near term, possibly considering a new charter after some time.

Given that any significant revisions or repeal of San Bernardino’s charter would shift power dynamics at City Hall, a political fight would be just about inevitable if any measures end up on the November ballot or at a later election.

But aside from how changes to the charter may affect any specific politicians, the essential debate is whether City Hall would be better run if governed by the general rules followed by most California cities or maintain the relative independence that comes with a charter.

Compared to general law cities, charter cities have broader powers to set election rules, set zoning policies and assess taxes. For example, a general law city cannot impose a real estate transfer tax, but a charter city can.

“All of your rules are made in Sacramento. You can’t make your own rules,” said City Attorney James F. Penman, who wants San Bernardino to maintain its status as a charter city and whose position has been at the center of the city’s recent charter debates.

Penman allowed San Bernardino’s charter could be improved, but he declined to mention any specifics. He said City Hall needs to work its way through bankruptcy before attempting charter reforms.

“This isn’t the appropriate time to get into this,” he said. “There is a major financial crisis and it’s not at our door. It’s inside our door.”

The question of whether charters hamstring cities has received recent attention among commentators who have noticed that San Bernardino, like Stockton and Vallejo, are charter cities. Vallejo has already emerged from bankruptcy after becoming the first California city to seek protections from its creditors, and Stockton filed a Chapter 9 case in late June.

The three cities, however, are also among the nation’s hardest hit by the post-2007 housing market bust. Foreclosure stats from the Irvine-based RealtyTrac show that during the first six months of this year, the Stockton area had the nation’s highest foreclosure rate. The Inland Empire took third place, followed by the Vallejo area.

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