If it passes, the charter measure could lay groundwork for possible seismic changes in Menlo Park's governance policies, creating a Pandora's box of sorts to alter what have traditionally been givens in the way the city runs as a "general law" city.
"In a nutshell, the benefit of becoming a charter city is the ability to have more control over local government autonomy," explained City Attorney Bill McClure in a staff report.
"From a local control standpoint, I think it's a positive move for Menlo Park," said Mayor Peter Ohtaki.
Things that the city is not allowed to do as a "general law" city could be permitted under a charter. These include allowing public financing of election campaigns, making it easier to outsource certain jobs, and accepting bids that aren't just the lowest ones offered.
Becoming a charter city might make it easier to do design-build projects, Mr. McClure said, because usually the city has to take the lowest bidder, even if that contractor has a record of trouble. Or it could contract with private developers to do public works projects — for instance, someone working on a development could more easily and more cost-effectively replace an adjacent sidewalk than a contractor selected through the public process for that job alone.
A charter could also enable the council to explore a documentary transfer tax — though this would require further voter approval, according to Mr. McClure — and allow council members to determine their own salaries. Currently, council members receive compensation based on the state's salary ceiling, which establishes salary based on a city's population.
These possibilities are in addition to the original reason that spurred the council to look into a charter: exploring an alternative voting system to the options the city currently has, which is to use an at-large or by-district voting system. Currently, an appointed districting advisory committee is developing recommendations for how the city could be divided into five or six voting districts, each with its own elected council member.
City Attorney Bill McClure insists, though, that while a charter would grant the council greater authority and flexibility, it's unlikely the council would "run wild." As with a general law city, he said, a charter city would still be subject to a voter referendum, repealing or preventing policies from going into effect. Or voters could amend the charter to restrict the council's authority.
One drawback is that there are some ongoing questions with the courts as to just what cities can legislate for themselves, according to the report. Charter cities aren't supposed to legislate on matters that are considered of "statewide concern" — and courts' definitions of what exactly that means has shifted over time, according to Mr. McClure's report. Housing policy, for instance, was once considered a local affair, but more recent court decisions indicate that it is a statewide concern, according to the staff report.
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