Should city leaders and residents work together to provide more local autonomy for Auburn and an increased level of municipal services for residents? Should we help ensure that volunteer community projects continue to go forward in our town into the future? Converting Auburn from a “general law city” to a “charter city” provides that opportunity.

Auburn, as a general law city, must follow the dictates of laws passed by a state legislature that is dominated by special interest groups, even with respect to municipal affairs. However, Article IX of the California Constitution, commonly known as the “home-rule” provision, provides a general law city and its residents with an opportunity to convert to a charter city and thereby gain additional authority over its own municipal affairs. This option is based on the fundamental truth that local city leaders and residents are in a better position to craft a local governance structure that meets local needs than a more distant state government. Except in cases of “statewide concern,” a home-rule city can chart its own destiny. When a majority of local voters pass a “charter,” which is the city’s custom-designed constitution, they become a charter city.

More and more general law cities are converting to charter city status because as stated in the 2009 report “Are Charter Cities Taking Advantage of Prevailing Wage Exemptions,” by the Associated Builders and Contractors California Cooperation Committee, “California has the most complicated, convoluted, expensive prevailing wage law in the country.” This law has artificially inflated, as shown in a number of studies cited in the 2009 report, the cost of building affordable housing by 9-37% and other construction projects from 6-15% depending on the region. The law also shuts out small construction companies and their local workers from working on local jobs in Auburn. This means higher costs for taxpayers, fewer beneficial construction projects for Auburn residents and fewer construction jobs for workers in Placer County.

Charter cities have the option to exempt themselves from the expensive and illogical state law on the prevailing wage when contracting for construction projects, such as paving roads or building sidewalks. Out of 116 charter cities, 47 have enacted full or partial prevailing wage exemptions in their charters. Given that the City of Auburn averages approximately $10 million in public works projects each year, a 5-10% savings by exempting itself from the state prevailing wage law could translate into $500,000 to $1 million in savings each year. The extra $500,000 or $1 million a year would go a long way toward providing better-maintained roads and sidewalks in our town.

And crazy as it may seem, starting on January 1, 2012, Auburn will be required by state law to pay volunteers the inflated prevailing wage on a community project, even when the city merely buys the paint. If Auburn were a charter city, we wouldn’t have to worry about insane laws like this one.

Let’s have a robust debate and discussion about the pros and cons of converting from a general law city to a charter city. Let’s examine all the short-term and long-term legal, financial and quality of life implications. Let’s examine the home-rule charters of the 116 California cities that are charter cities to find good ideas that would be applicable to Auburn.