Lancaster Seeks Independence From State With Charter City Decision

chartercity300.jpgIn a move to strengthen local control and achieve greater financial independence from the state of California, Lancaster voters overwhelmingly decided to become a charter city in April's election, reflecting a rising trend in response to the state's budget crisis.

Lancaster joined Palmdale, the Antelope Valley's other major city, as a charter city just five months after Palmdale residents also voted for financial independence.

"The causes for a city to become a charter city are varied, but I think the budget crisis has made cities look for ways to cut costs and increase their autonomy from the state," said Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the advocacy group League of California Cities.

When a city elects to become a charter city, it gains control over its own municipal affairs. Laws passed by the state legislature pertaining to local governments don't apply to charter cities. General laws, like those regulating education for example, still do. Seven cities have become charter cities in the past five years, and according to Whitnell, more are considering the switch.

"In my experience, cities become charter cities for more flexibility in how they hold their elections, the ability to impose taxes that general-law cities can't impose, and to avoid having to pay prevailing wage on public construction projects," Whitnell said.

Lancaster City Attorney Dave McEwen raised the charter city concept with city staff members after Palmdale moved to place the measure on its November ballot. Staff and city council members alike embraced the idea.

"It was in a response to the state continually making an effort to take our dollars," Jason Caudle, deputy city manager, said. "That also had an impact."

Seventy-six percent of voters supported the Lancaster charter city switch.

McEwen said Lancaster will now begin studying how to transition to conducting elections with all-mail ballots, and could foresee other opportunities for financial benefits. "We can also increase economic development," he said. "We can create procedures for creating jobs, which will stimulate economic development. This is far more difficult under state control."

Although officials are optimistic about the benefits to Lancaster, the specific day-to-day implications of the switch are at this point unclear.

"I don't think [citizens] will see a lot of visible changes," McEwen said. "It will be in areas that are beneficial to the community at large but it's going to be stuff the average citizen won't see. It won't be something physical. In the long term they will see the benefits derived from those efforts."

As California state finances continue to suffer, municipalities like Lancaster relish the independence being a charter city provides.

"There are opportunities that we don't even know about yet," Caudle said. "There are revenue opportunities that may be proscribed under a general-law city. As we progress we'll learn more about exactly what they are."

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