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Escondido to consider becoming county’s newest charter city

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Come November, Escondido voters will decide whether to become a charter city.

If approved, Proposition P would change the North County city from a “general law” city that is governed by laws enacted by the state legislature to one subjected to details of its own charter, except on issues of state or federal concern, where they answer to the California or U.S. Constitutions.

But of primary concern for local lawmakers is the fact that charter cities aren’t required to pay prevailing wages for public contracts, while general law cities are.

The State Supreme Court confirmed in July that Vista and other cities aren’t required to pay prevailing wages if they transition from general law cities to charter cities.

In a report presented for the city council, Escondido officials suggest that savings from not paying prevailing wages could equal as much as $16 million over the next five years. It came to that figure by estimating that it would save 5 to 10 percent of the $163 million in projects it has budgeted over the next five years, although it notes that state or federal grant funds might require a prevailing wage and therefore not realize any cost savings.

In June, El Cajon became the eighth charter city in San Diego, joining Vista, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Del Mar, Chula Vista, San Marcos and San Diego.

Other changes the transition would allow include putting term limits on the city council, create district-level elections and give the city more control over zoning-related issues.

Putting the charter on the November ballot will cost Escondido between $35,000 and $40,000. The city will also spend $13,200 for an informational mailer to explain the issue to voters.

Escondido’s charter, in addition to freeing the city from paying prevailing wages, will also begin council elections by geographic district. Escondido will be the first North County city to have such an arrangement.

District-based elections are favored by many Democratic groups because they allow minority populations to win representation in districts with heavy concentration, while they may not be able to do so in citywide elections.

In Escondido, approving district elections might save the city $3 million it would otherwise have to pay to defend against a lawsuit alleging that the current citywide election system discriminates against Latinos. Escondido City Attorney Jeff Epp suggested the city move to district elections as a strategic move over the lawsuit.

Two Councilmen, Mike Morasco and Ed Gallo, in May voted in favor of putting the charter on the November ballot, based on the City Attorney’s advice over the $3 million in savings for the city.

Like other critics of district-based elections, the councilmen see the set-up as a maneuver by special interests to gain control.

According to the charter language, Escondido would have a five-member city council with four representatives nominated and elected only by the residents of their districts. The fifth member, the mayor, will be elected by citywide vote.

Changes would become effective in the 2014 election.

Outlines of the four city districts wouldn’t be decided until after the charter is approved by voters.

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