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SLOJX CHARTER 1906San Luis Obispo’s First Charter Joseph A. Carotenuti Enough was enough! Saddled with municipal spending benefiting political favorites, unnecessary staff, taxation without consultation with the electorate…San Luis Obispo needed a municipal overhaul - the year: 1908. The plan was not simply to pass a few new ordinances and some vague resolutions but create a new charter…a municipal constitution…ensuring the community was not enslaved by state generated laws or the whims of local governance. Here’s the story. As one of the oldest settlements in California, San Luis Obispo had several official municipal changes. First declared a town by the State Legislature on February 19, 1856, two additional incorporations (1858 and 1867) finally resulted in legislation declaring a City of San Luis Obispo on May 1, 1876. While the new City was of the “sixth class” (less than 3,000 in population) with limited ability to generate revenue, there was a growth in both population and prosperity. When ready to move into a city of the fifth class (5000 residents), some citizens began a movement to incorporate again as a Charter City as permitted in the State Constitution (Article XI). As such, the “new” city would have more autonomy over municipal affairs than being a “general rule” community regulated by Sacramento. Led by the Chamber of Commerce, on February 20, 1906, a resolution was passed by the City Council calling for the election of “freeholders” – a commission - to frame the charter. Rather than depend on printed ballots provided by “several factions” for freeholders, those present at a community meeting cast secret handwritten votes. Commented the newspaper, those chosen had “no axe to grind” in a vote “marked by justice and righteousness.” The committee brought together some of the most involved and noteworthy citizens of the community including: • Benjamin Brooks: author and longtime editor of the Tribune; • Warren M. John: a political force behind the establishment of Cal Poly; • William Mallagh: an attorney and judge whose family dated from the earliest history of the area; • Frank C. Mitchell: a successful contractor who donated the land for the park bearing his name; • William Sandercock: who began a “transfer’ company in the early days of the “town” that still operates in the city; • Louis F. Sinsheimer: his father and mother A. Z. and Nellie are the ancestors for the local family. Louis became the longest serving of 20 City mayors (1919-1939). With their election on March 9, the fifteen men – the only requirement was five years as a voter - had 90 days to deliberate and produce a charter for the Council’s consideration. Never reticent about their opinions, both the Morning Tribune and citizens were sure to declare their beliefs. A reader who signed as “Brakeman” highlighted the benefits of a new charter and admonished: improvements needed to be made “west of Monterey Street’ rather than solely on “favored locations.” Those elected needed to “not laugh and grin at us” as if they were “masters rather than servants” who now performed their duties in a “spirit of favoritism.” “Fear and favor,” he concluded, “seem to be the guiding principals of the present system.” In an article full of municipal fervor, the newspaper emphasized the freeholders’ deliberations would send the City “further along on the highway of progress and prosperity.” Having grown by nearly 60% in ten year, the expectation was the community would change in both form and substance with the promise of a “splendid future.” Typically, there never was unanimity as some complained as to those elected to develop the charter. The deliberations of the committee are recorded in a slim Freeholders Minute Book preserved in the City’s vault beginning on May 2 and concluding on July 6 and include a variety of related notes, invoices, and assorted ephemera. Besides civic issues, the charter proposal also included the board of education elected at the same time as city politicians. The completed document addressed elections, salaries, officers, municipal services, taxation, claims, contracts, streets, sewers, and bridges among major topics. The proposed charter was presented to the City Council three days later and an election was called for Saturday, December 22. The day before the election, the Chamber published a letter to the voters promoting the benefits of the charter and arguing against one objection in most any election: taxes. They hoped to prove that the charter would not raise taxes…but there was no promise of lowering them either. It was to be a momentous vote for the city. The electorate rejected the proposed charter. It seems the various community factions were not pleased with the men chosen to write the charter. “Very little interest (was) taken in the measure,” commented the press. Of the 1381 registered voters about 40% cast ballots. Of 567 votes cast, a decisive majority (367) cast negative ballots. To date, no copy of this first charter has been discovered. While ordered printed, it probably was in a booklet form rather than in the pages of the newspaper. A preserved Table of Contents can only surmise its contents. A copy of a charter – requiring more investigation - may be in the Cal Poly Special Collection of the Louis Sinsheimer papers. While unable to convince the electorate of the need for the charter in 1907, its defeat did not dissuade its proponents. Four years later, another Freeholders election was held and another charter submitted to the voters. The saga of the second attempt will follow next month when we acknowledge our Charter Centennial.