"We'll bring back something that may not achieve that goal, or it may," he told the council.
A charter city?
General law cities, which is what Menlo Park is now, follow a standard template of what kinds of laws and ordinances can be implemented. Charter cities generally have more freedom to customize how they practice and implement their laws — though how much depends largely on how courts are trending on issues of local control, according to Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver.
Because the city would be on a tight timeline to put together, bring through public review and approve a charter document to bring to voters at the November election, Mr. McClure brought up the possibility of passing an "enabling charter," which would convert the city to a charter one but wouldn't lay out what would change — that could be decided later. Some residents expressed concern that the lack of specificity could give too much power to the council.
Without the template of "general law" prescriptions, cities run the risk of being too prescriptive or restrictive, according to the staff report.
Council members raised concerns that the optics of switching to a charter city from a general law city now could look bad, and that the move could open the city to new liability.
Councilman Ray Mueller said the timing of the transition might "look like we're trying to get around the [California Voting Rights Act]." One of the main reasons advocates have been supporting the switch to a charter is because doing so could create the possibility of a "hybrid" voting system, which would use some forms of district elections and some forms of ranked-choice or cumulative voting. However, those alternatives don't protect the city from the threat of a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit; only changing the entire city to district elections offers that protection, according to staff.
In an interview, Mr. Mueller said he didn't see much appeal in rushing the process and would rather see it as a multi-year process to gather public input before bringing the matter to voters. Doing so, he said, could be a "tremendous opportunity to go ahead sit down with stakeholders and figure out the values as a city we would want to put in a charter."
During council deliberations on the matter, Mayor Peter Ohtaki asked, "If our intention was really to have the provision on elections, do we really need to get into all of the other issues, and is that best left for a future council to add that as a charter provision?"
But there are also a number of practical reasons a city might wish to make the transition, according to a staff report. Charter cities have more flexibility when it comes to city affairs like construction and maintenance contracting, land use, city finances, city governance structure and elections.
In addition to the possibility of being able to explore alternative voting systems, a charter could allow the city to be more selective with its contracting practices, amend its general plan more frequently, and implement a documentary transfer tax.
When it comes to topics of "statewide concern" — as defined by the Legislature and courts — state law preempts policies of general law or charter cities. "Given the current encroachment into local control by both the legislature and courts, the distinctions between general law and charter cities is probably at an all-time low," writes Ms. Silver in the staff report.
Next, staff will bring back the three potential draft charters at another public hearing scheduled for May 8. If the council moves forward with one of those options, there will be another 21 days' notice before a third public meeting June 5. The final ballot measure would have to be submitted to the county clerk by Aug. 10 to make it on the Nov. 6 ballot.
This story contains 756 words.
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