Vote Local Part 2: What Does The City Council Do?

This year in Costa Mesa, there are three city council seats open. That’s a big deal considering there are only five council members total. It’s hard not to imagine the opening scene from Waiting for Guffman when you hear the term “city council” but there is actually a lot to the job.


While the drama and excitement of this year’s election makes it tempting to jump to who’s running and what they are like (we’ll get there), let’s first look at what we are asking council members to do.

According to the Costa Mesa City Council Policy, “the city council of the City of Costa Mesa is charged with the responsibility of establishing municipal policies to guide the various functions of the city, and to establish procedures by which functions are performed.” Without getting into boring details, let’s look at how that practically plays out. 

The city council is the legislative body in a council/city manager form of government.  In Costa Mesa, we now call our city manager, the City CEO.  The council appoints the City CEO to basically run the city, overseeing the staff and carrying out the council’s policies. 

The council creates policies regarding virtually every part of the city from economic development strategies to public safety to parks to resurfacing streets. A major policy is the city’s General Plan which is the official policy with regard to physical development of the city. They also adopt the city’s annual budget and appropriate the funds. 

The council has city staff, like the CEO, Police Chief, and Fire Chief who advise them and make recommendations but ultimately, the city council makes the calls. Additionally there are resident commissions and committees that make recommendations to the city council regarding areas like Parks and Recreation, Bike Pathways, Cultural Arts, Finances, Planning, Seniors and more. Currently there are 15 commissions, committees, and oversight boards that report to the city council.

The councils and commissions are a great avenue for engaging more residents in the policy making process, however, currently, many of the commissions and committees are made up of only city council members or council members and staff. 

The recommendations of the commissions and committees are submitted to the city council and discussed at the city council study sessions on the second Tuesday of each month and/or at the city council meetings held on the first and third Tuesday of each month.  The City CEO and city council members are the only people who can submit agenda items for these meetings. Additionally, the city council as a whole can direct staff to research topics, develop studies and do research on items of particular interest.

While there is a lot of business for a city council to handle there are also social engagements with the public like ribbon cuttings at new businesses, charity events, and town halls. 

City council members are elected by a citywide vote in a general election for a four year term. The mayor is appointed from the five members to preside over meetings and ceremonial occasions. (But that’s changing too- more to come in this blog series). 

As we approach November 8 and consider the depth and breadth of services and issues governed by the city council I’d like to propose a few questions to consider while reviewing the candidates:

  • Which of the candidates will trust and resource city leaders like the chiefs of the police and fire departments to carry out the duties they’ve been hired to do?
  • Who has the creativity and facilitation experience to engage diverse segments of Costa Mesa to participate in solving issues and developing our city together?
  • What could a council that enjoys working together and collaborating with the public accomplish?  How would the city staff feel under that leadership? Residents? City partners?
  • How would you want your suggestions and insights to be received by those in power who represent you?  Who will do that?

In an upcoming post we will discuss who is running for city council. In the meantime, ponder what kind of leadership is right for our city at this point in our history.