Six Costa Mesa City Council candidates traded thoughts, barbs and quips Thursday night in front of a rapt and sizable audience during the Feet to the Fire Forum at Orange Coast College.
In a wide-ranging conversation that touched on topics from development to medical marijuana, the council hopefuls outlined their thoughts on issues facing Costa Mesa in front of a crowd of more than 200 at OCC's Robert B. Moore Theatre.
Three spots are open on the five-member council Nov. 8. At least one new person will join the dais as the replacement for Councilman Gary Monahan, who is termed out of office.
During the talk show-style discussion that lasted about 90 minutes and was hosted by Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia and former Pilot Publisher Tom Johnson, the candidates were asked about the divided nature of the council and the sometimes-harsh tone of city politics.
"I think we do have some real differences on the direction of the city," said Councilwoman Sandy Genis, who is running for reelection. "People feel a need to be heard and they don't feel they're being heard. I think that accounts for some of the acrimony."
Lee Ramos, a retired businessman who sits on the city's Senior Commission, said he also thinks some of the problems in Costa Mesa's discourse stem from people not sitting down and talking with each other.
The response to that, the Eastside resident said, should be "leadership that's going to force us to come to the table and talk," not what has happened instead: residents turning to the ballot box and pushing for initiatives on certain issues.
"Having all these initiatives is ridiculous," he said.
John Stephens, an attorney and Mesa Verde resident who last ran in 2012, said he thinks there would be fewer voter-driven initiatives if council members were to "work together and listen to ideas and not be caught up in their own ideology."
He pointed to one of his campaign platforms, which is to "be nice."
Thursday's forum touched on several measures Costa Mesa residents will vote for in November, including one from activist group Costa Mesa First that would require some larger development projects to receive direct voter approval, not just the City Council.
Former Councilman Jay Humphrey, who worked with Costa Mesa First on the initiative, said the measure would give residents a needed say in shaping how the city will look in the years to come.
Such an initiative was necessary, he said, because there were many who "felt the public was not being listened to, relative to the density issues in our community."
"The reality is that councils change over and over and over again," he said, "and the community has to have the right to vote on its own future."
Allan Mansoor, a former mayor and state assemblyman, said he generally thinks that "governing from the ballot box is a very poor way to govern."
"You can't just say no to everything; you have to have some opportunity for revitalization," he said.
Mayor Steve Mensinger, who is up for reelection, said he's concerned that Costa Mesa First's law, if passed, could bring the future growth and development in the city to a halt.
"This will stop everything from a Starbucks to a retail store," he said, an assertion that Genis and Humphrey contested.
None of the names on November's ballot should be wholly unfamiliar to Costa Mesa voters. All seven of the candidates have either run for or served on the council before.
Mansoor served from 2002 to 2010, before leaving to join the state Assembly. Humphrey served from 1990 to 1994 and came up 47 votes short of winning another council term in 2014.
Ramos ran in 2014, finishing fourth in a field of eight candidates. Stephens narrowly lost in 2012 by 155 votes.
The only council hopeful not present at Thursday's forum was State Streets resident Al Melone, a retired certified public accountant who sits on the city's Pension Oversight Committee and is known as an activist for the Bark Park.
Melone said he chose not to participate in the event this time around.
This year is Melone's third time running for council. In 2012, he finished seventh in the field of eight candidates. In 2014, he was sixth among the eight candidates.