Costa Mesa police officers are challenging the accuracy of critical statements made about them in a campaign mailer produced in support of two City Council candidates.
The mailer sent by the campaigns for Councilman Steve Mensinger and Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy accuse police officers of "stalking" council members, trying to set up Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer for a false DUI and refusing to negotiate with the city regarding pension reforms.
"Whomever put out that mail piece either failed to research the facts or was intentionally untruthful to thousands of Costa Mesans," said Jason Chamness, president of the Costa Mesa Police Officers Assn. (CMPOA).
McCarthy and Mensinger on Monday stood by the accuracy of their political piece.
"It's all based on verifiable facts that have been public for some time," McCarthy said.
"The Costa Mesa Police Association is apparently powerful enough to get the Pilot to use its scarce resources to report on a single campaign flier while ignoring for days that out-of-town unions have poured a record $480,000 in campaign funds into this year's Costa Mesa elections," Mensinger said in an email.
This is the flier language in dispute:
"Costa Mesa's police officers are the highest paid officers in Orange County, and they refuse to sit down and discuss the reforms necessary to reduce overtime and fix out-of-control pension costs. Instead they have resorted to intimidation and strong-arm tactics, like stalking council members and making false DUI accusations, to bully the council into giving them what they want."
Stalking is against the law.
However, McCarthy says the flier is referring to a private investigator who used to work for the police union's law firm. It is the P.I. who stalked Righeimer, he alleged, not sworn police officers.
"It's accusing the private investigator of a crime, and the D.A.'s looking into the case against the private investigator," McCarthy said.
The passage references a false drunk driving accusation made against Righeimer in August in which a Menifee-based private investigator called police and said the councilman was swerving in his SUV and appeared to be driving drunk, even though Righeimer has said he only had Diet Coke to drink. The investigator worked for law firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, which at the time represented CMPOA, although it was unclear who he was working for the night of the DUI call.
The police association denied commissioning someone to follow the mayor pro tem and cut ties with the firm, saying they wanted to move away from the aggressive tactics associated with Lackie, Dammeier & McGill. The Orange County district attorney is reviewing the case, and so far the investigator has not been charged.
McCarthy said the tie between the police association and investigator from Riverside County clearly illustrates that Costa Mesa police were behind the DUI call.
"The pieces of the puzzle connect that it was a private investigator for the Lackie, Dammeier law firm [that] followed home a council member," McCarthy said.
Chamness said no one in the CMPD has been accused of participating in the alleged setup.
"Fact: I have seen no such accusations made by any official that a Costa Mesa police officer filed a false police report against any council member especially, Jim Righeimer, for DUI," he said. "That is simply an untrue statement."
As to the flier's claims that police refused to meet with the city over pension reform, a memo from the same law firm seems to suggest a willingness to negotiate.
"The POA expressed a concern that given this pension is not competitive in Orange County, the city will have difficulty recruiting quality police officers," lawyer Dieter Dammeier said regarding the second-tier pension in the Aug. 14 memo. "Nevertheless, the POA realizes the City Council will not hire police officers until there is a new pension tier."
Chamness said the city and association did meet on compensation, adding that the city did not bring up the issue of overtime in negotiations.
"We met with the city several times this year and offered solutions related to a second-tier pension, that the current City Council rejected," Chamness said. "Then the city canceled our last scheduled meeting and did not respond to our last request to continue discussions. The city never addressed overtime in those meetings."
Police Chief Tom Gazsi, who is not represented by the association, confirmed that police showed willingness to meet with representatives from the city.
"I was very pleased, at my request, that the police association offered to meet with the city about compensation issues over the summer. However, the city canceled future meetings," Gazsi said.
Mensinger called the proposed pension plan for new officers unsustainable and said that Costa Mesa police are well compensated when compared with other cities.
"The police union has negotiated very generous and unsustainable compensation packages for its members that rank as the highest or among the highest in Orange County, depending on how they are measured," Mensinger said in the email. "The union leadership has not agreed to open their contract, and they are unwilling to even give the city a sustainable pension plan for new officers."
Whether Costa Mesa officers are the county's highest paid remains in dispute. Officers said they believe they are the county's fifth- or sixth-highest paid and fall among neighboring Newport Beach, Irvine, Huntington Beach and Santa Ana.
"Fact: Costa Mesa police officers are not the highest paid in the county, and City Hall recently dispelled that rumor," Chamness said.
The city's finance director, Bobby Young, said there was no information available about where Costa Mesa police rank in compensation when compared with other county cities.
Gazsi said he does not believe the CMPD's officers are the best-paid.
"According to Human Resources, based on total compensation of police officers, we are not the highest paid in the county," Gazsi said.
Former Councilwoman Katrina Foley said the mailer was an attempt to mislead voters. She said that she recalls the police association making overtures to the city in an effort to negotiate compensation.
"It's filled with lies," said Foley, now a school board member. "First of all, Costa Mesa's police officers are not the highest paid. [That was] refuted by the city itself. They knew that that was a lie, and they went ahead and misled the public anyway. It just shows they can't be trusted."
However, Mensinger said organized labor is distorting the issue to its advantage before the election.