Bakersfield City Council members seem almost giddy at the idea of having -- as one called it -- a “fresh start” with a new city manager. And they have quickly placed Bakersfield’s century-old city charter in their crosshairs.
Council members last month hired Christian Clegg to replace Alan Tandy, who retired after serving nearly three decades as Bakersfield’s city manager. The 41-year-old Clegg, who is now Stockton’s deputy city manager, begins work next month.
Among his first assignments will be to hire a new Bakersfield police chief to fill the vacancy left when Lyle Martin retired from the force and moved into a Kern County District Attorney’s Office job. The city’s charter requires the new chief to be appointed from the ranks of the city police force.
And that has generated talk specifically about the hiring restriction, as well as the entire city charter.
“To truly realize Bakersfield’s potential, it may be necessary to look at some of the city’s legislative bylaws, which were largely crafted generations ago,” wrote Vice Mayor Chris Parlier in a recent Californian opinion article. Parlier doubts a charter that voters approved in 1914 should still be providing “the foundation for the governance of this modern city.”
Parlier went on to note that Bakersfield, California’s ninth largest city, needs to become more competitive with other cities for state funds and to defend local industries, such as oil and agriculture.
“Clearly, in many areas, Bakersfield is late to the political table and needs to enter the fray to fight for the resources we contribute, need and deserve,” he wrote, noting that Bakersfield lacks the lobbying and political resources other cities have.
Seeming to blame Bakersfield’s arcane city charter, Parlier contended, “We are the only city of our size that doesn’t have support staff for the mayor and/or council that can aid in constituent services and outreach” to strengthen the city’s regional, state and national government clout.
The city’s charter does not prevent Bakersfield from contracting with lobbying firms, as other cities do, or adding staff to the city manager’s office or city departments to improve “constituent services and outreach.”
What it does do is limit council pay to $100 per month. And that frustrates some members, who occasionally clamor for a raise. When Bakersfield voters were asked to increase council pay – in 1954, 1956, 1974, 1988 and 1990 – they repeatedly refused. The charter also allots the mayor only one fulltime clerical staff.
With these limits, voters seem to be saying that they want their city governed by a part time City Council comprised of average citizens, who are paid only token salaries. Overseeing the city’s day-to-day operation is delegated to a fulltime professional city manager. But gradually City Council members have enhanced their “pay” by giving themselves about $8,000 a year in car allowance, potentially $25,000 a year in medical insurance, and other benefits.
There may be other valid reasons for now taking a good, hard look at the city charter, which was adopted when Bakersfield’s population hovered around 13,000. The city’s population now is about 400,000 – not counting the many thousands of people who live in the unincorporated islands of metropolitan Bakersfield.
And from time to time, voters have agreed to make some changes. For example, in past years, they have struck obsolete provisions, such as those calling for Bakersfield to have its own welfare and courts departments.
But many of the existing provisions, which can be read at www.bakersfield.municipal.codes/Charter are relied on today to fairly hire public employees; oversee vital city departments, such as fire and police; specify government contracting rules to prevent corruption and cronyism; and to conduct city elections.
About 25 percent of California’s 478 incorporated cities are governed by charters, like Bakersfield’s. Charters were crafted in the early years of California’s formation and were in response to the state’s heavy-handed treatment of cities. Charters expressed citizens’ demands for “home rule” and seemed to warn state lawmakers “don’t tread on me.”
Bakersfield City Council members should heed that warning, too. Tread lightly. Begin with appointing a charter review commission to work closely with community groups. Patiently ask voters to consider only incremental, politically-sound revisions.
Bakersfield’s city charter has been on the books for more than 100 years. It can’t and shouldn’t be changed overnight.