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City Opts for Go-Slow Approach on Charter City

The El Cerrito City Council agreed Monday night to continue pursuing the option of converting to a charter city, which would give the city more local autonomy, including increased ability to raise revenue through taxes.

Faced with three options on a proposal to turn El Cerrito into a charter city, the City Council Monday night chose the middle road of laying careful groundwork for charter city conversion without committing to it.

It rejected two other options of deferring action to a later date or accelerated pursuit with the aim of placing a charter city measure on the ballot a year from now, in November 2012. (A city staff report with all three options is attached to this article.)

Could be on Nov. 2014 ballot

The option chosen unanimously by the council forecasts a charter city measure on the November 2014 ballot, if the city decides after further study to go forward on conversion.

Councilwoman Janet Abelson said it's important to spend sufficient time discovering what the public wants and developing a strategic plan, citing the city's successful Measure A approved by voters in 2008 that funded and made the city "able to go from the bottom in road conditions to the top."

"We did everything carefully, and we didn't try to rush it," she said.

Features of a charter city

There are two types of cities in California. Three-fourths of them, including El Cerrito, are general-law cities, and the remaining fourth are charter cities. General-law cities are regulated by state law to a greater degree than are charter cities, which are guided by their own "charter" with greater control over local elections, city contracts and finances, though the local autonomy remains limited by state and federal law.

A chief benefit for charter cities is greater taxing power, such as a local real estate transfer tax, which can provide sources of revenue denied to general law cities, City Manager Scott Hanin and City Attorney Sky Woodruff told the council.

City staff estimates that El Cerrito could raise about $1 million from a real estate transfer tax, which is levied when property is sold. The city's current general fund budget is $29 million.

Charter cities also have greater leeway on spending money from general assessment districts.

Other charter cities in the East Bay include Richmond, Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Piedmont, San Leandro, Hayward, Vallejo and San Ramon.

Origin of proposal in El Cerrito

The proposal for converting to charter-city status was made by Councilman Bill Jones at the June 7 council meeting, and the council at its Oct. 3 meeting agreed to study it.

"A general law city to a large extent is run by the state legislature," Jones said at this week's council meeting. "And it sets the procedures, requirements and regulations. ... That means the people outside of El Cerrito, with little or (without) any connection and responsibility to El Cerrito, are determining how we operate."

Charter and strategic planning in parallel

As outlined in the staff report, the option picked by the council could be combined with a broad "Strategic Plan," which would help define the city's vision and priorities and could include a "capital needs assessment," a general plan update and ways charter-city status could help the city realize its goals.

The process could also include surveys to help identify potential resident support for having a city charter and for civic improvements such as rebuilding or significantly renovating the library, public safety building and senior center, Hanin and Woodruff said.

Both the Strategic Plan and surveys would benefit the city whether or not it decides to pursue the charter option, they said.

Mayor Ann Cheng noted that the city can "move forward with the strategic planning without the charter."

Hanin said that it makes sense to keep the charter option and the revenue source it could represent in reserve if the city is going to do a strategic plan and needs assessment.

"It's not expensive to do the charter process parallel with these other things," he said. "...That's a potential revenue source we may be throwing out (by ruling out a charter now)."

Drafting charter and cost

The charter path also would include forming a Charter Review Committee to develop the charter that would ultimately be presented to the voters.

The total estimated cost for all the components of the option favored by the council would be $220,000, according to the staff report. The city has only $25,000 set aside for a survey and would have to take the remainder from reserves if other funding sources are not identified and made available, the report said.

What next?

The option chosen by the council authorizes city staff to proceed with a survey and calls for staff to return to the council in early 2012 "to seek further direction and authorization on the Strategic Planning effort."

Local Mom November 09, 2011 at 08:26 PM
Let me save some time and money for the city by skipping the survey step - I'll tell you now - a new library should be the top priority capital project!

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