Los Angeles Times

Political newcomer making waves in Costa Mesa

This post has been corrected, as noted at the end of the story.

Soon after taking the podium, Anna Vrska admitted to being a little nervous.

"Oh, my goodness! This is a dead room," she remarked a few minutes later, looking up from her notes and scanning the room. "Does everybody need a break like I need a break? Catch a breath, maybe?"

Vrska was standing alone before more than 100 interested parties attending November's Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee meeting. The 208-acre park in Costa Mesa has made news throughout the year for myriad reasons, not the least of which is the resurrection of a topic long fraught with discord: adding sports fields or retaining the passive open space.

Vrska, one of the committee's nine voting members, was scheduled that evening to reveal the results of her months-long investigation related to that dispute.

Her speech was succinctly titled, "Youth Sports Data."

Vrska's voice was somewhat monotone, her gaze turned downward as she read, but after touching upon the topic, her words soon evolved into an account about larger frustrations at City Hall.

She used the microphone to question the city's approval of some archaeological work at the park.

Vrska then criticized the makeup of the committee itself, saying that it was unrepresentative of a diverse community. It lacked enough women and minorities, she contended, and its membership was stacked with people associated with the committee's City Council liaison, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger.

"No offense to present company," Vrska said, "but many of the people on the committee seem to be close allies and friends of Mr. Mensinger."

Supporters applauded Vrska's statements as she took her seat, which happened to be next to Mensinger.

Richard Mehren, the committee's chairman, raised his arms in an effort to bring decorum, settle the mood and continue on with the matters ahead.

In the eyes of her supporters, however, Vrska's 18 minutes that evening were a defining moment, when a seemingly unimposing woman demonstrated that she was anything but timid.


A new firebrand?

"We are big supporters of Anna," said Brian Burnett of Friends of Fairview Nature Park, a group that seeks to promote open space and natural uses for the park. "I thought she came out with some claws that night, for sure."

While Vrska isn't a member of the group, Burnett added, "I think we all agree with what she has to say."

Vrska is a political newcomer, who, at 35, is young compared with her colleagues on other city committees and commissions. The rest of the Fairview Park committee members are men.

"Being the only woman, and being the youngest member, I felt an added responsibility to try to represent certain aspects of the community that I would feel are underrepresented," she said in an interview.

In April, 27 people applied for the reconvened committee — more than any other group the council sought to fill that month. Up for grabs were seven at-large and two alternate seats, though the council later upgraded the alternates to at-large members. Six of the applicants were women.

Mayor Jim Righeimer appointed Vrska, and the council confirmed her on a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Gary Monahan dissenting.

Righeimer and Mensinger interviewed Vrska before her appointment.

"You don't want a rubber-stamp committee," Righeimer said. "You want people with different backgrounds, and she definitely has that."

"I was happy to nominate her," he added. "I'm still fine with it."

Mensinger disagreed with Vrska's notions about the committee's membership, but said there aren't many people in town he doesn't know.

"If you said you can't have a person on a body because they're friends or associates, I wouldn't be able to put together any bodies," Mensinger said. "That's somewhat counterintuitive. I've been in the city for 30 years. I'm certainly going to have more friends and associates than somebody who's been in the city for a year."

When Mensinger interviewed Vrska, he saw "youthful energy."

"I applaud her getting involved," Mensinger said, "but I think she's young, and she probably would be well-served to understand the art of building consensus."


'Doing my due diligence'

Vrska was born in Serbia and moved to Costa Mesa around 1988. She grew up in College Park and now lives on the Eastside with her boyfriend.

"I grew up on the American dream," she said. "I grew up on freedoms, and on liberty, and on making of yourself anything you want to be. Whenever I feel like that's being tarnished, I notice and I get very passionate about it."

Vrska has worked for the Newport Beach Film Festival and in investment banking and the nonprofit world. Now she's a grant writer who is looking into merging her avocations into a new career.

"I like to combine the best of all worlds," Vrska said. "I'd like to have my cake and eat it too. That's what I'm trying to do."

She's also a board member for the Orange Coast River Park, a nonprofit aimed at coordinating the creation of a roughly 1,000-acre open-space park around the mouth of the Santa Ana River.

Vrska is not crazy about being in the spotlight, which shines brightly on most anyone in public office in politically charged Costa Mesa.

"I'm more comfortable somewhere in the background, crunching numbers," she said, "gathering reports and data, doing that type of thing [other] than speaking in public."

She described herself as analytical.

"I don't say things unless they're backed up with data or things that are said in the community," she said. "I didn't start this to get liked or not liked. That's not my concern."

Vrska added, "I'm nobody's friend now. I've made people mad on all sides because I ask hard questions, and if there's a little thing that I find that doesn't make sense or is not logical to me, I'll ask. I want to clarify. I don't see it as attacking. I see it as doing my due diligence."


'Fortress Costa Mesa'

Though Vrska used some of her 18 minutes at the November meeting to be critical of the committee's framework and City Hall, she began with the topic at hand: "Youth Sports Data."

Vrska said early on in the committee meetings that the recurring debate of adding sports fields to Fairview Park was "going to be a concern, something that was going to be brought up and an important factor in the community."

Vrska thought the "burden of proof had to be adequate" for adding them, despite vocal groups for and against.

Using the mic, her voice trembling that evening, she declared a lack of evidentiary support for sports fields within Fairview Park.

She cited an apparent dearth of "hard facts and statistics," historical data or a community assessment that could possibly justify changing the park's natural character — fitting for bird watching, hiking and the like — to a more active environment teeming with baseball bats and soccer cleats.

Her statements came after months of researching and familiarizing herself with Costa Mesa's youth athletics groups and City Hall. She filed public records requests that took some 40 hours to complete, according to one city attorney. She also met personally with staff members for hours.

"There was a lot of time and effort in that," Yolanda Summerhill, the committee's attorney, said during the meeting. "I think staff should be commended."

Vrska later said she wasn't initially aware of the amount of staff time required for her requests, though once informed she began gathering her information independently. She also was told some reports on the topic are being compiled for release next year by the city's Parks and Recreation Commission.

However, Vrska said she remains frustrated about the current lack of complete data. She likened the task of gathering information to peeling an onion. It's enough to make you cry, she said, "because there's so much work."

In her estimation, the problem of finding room to play youth sports may not really be about a shortage of fields but a "traffic jam" of demand. Or, she surmised, there may be enough fields but not enough lights so the kids can use them after dusk.

"The more information I was trying to find, and found, the more questions I had," Vrska said. "I realized it's complex."

Councilwoman Sandy Genis, the committee's other council liaison and a longtime park advocate, commended Vrska's efforts.

"She's extremely bright, and she's very tenacious," Genis said. "I think I understand some of her frustrations, because I myself have sometimes referred to City Hall as 'fortress Costa Mesa' when it comes to prying information out."


'Agree not to agree'

Later during the Nov. 6 meeting, most of her fellow committee members gave Vrska a piece of their minds.

Lee Ramos, a lifetime Costa Mesa resident and 2014 council candidate, downplayed his ethnic background.

"I am Mexican, but first, I am American," he told her in Spanish.

Committee member Steve Smith, a former Daily Pilot columnist, alluded to Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement about judging people not by the color of their skin, "but by the content of their character."

Members Dennis Popp and Brett Eckles said that at some point they were minorities in other pursuits, with Popp citing his career as a nurse in a female-dominated profession.

He also took offense at Vrska's assertion that the committee was full of Mensinger's allies and friends, saying he thought it questioned his integrity and ability to think for himself.

In a follow-up email, Popp said: "I don't always agree with Anna, and I think she has taken a misguided approach to some issues. However, I respect and admire her persistence in getting the answers she wants."

Committee member Ron Amburgey, a longtime resident and sports booster, told Vrska she was "totally out of line." He called her report biased.

"You started out with a conclusion and worked your way back," he said.

"There's a lot of things you don't know," Amburgey added. "You're probably the least knowledgeable person about this city on this committee."

The comment aroused boos and gasps from the audience.

"That's fine. You're welcome to be here," he continued. "You're welcome to learn. But in the meantime, you don't have to cast aspersions on us. I don't think that's right."

Vrska replied that Amburgey was welcome to see her research and that she wanted to highlight a perceived discrepancy, not have it "swept under the rug."

Soon, the committee's chairman, Richard Mehren, interjected.

"OK, we'll just agree not to agree, OK?" he said.

Though he kept quiet during the back-and-forth between Vrska and the others, committee member David Stiller said he shares some views with her.

He later called the exchanges "unfortunate."

"She doesn't apologize for her views," Stiller explained. "She wants to see the park left alone. By and large, I think it's fair to say I would agree with her."

Vrska is to be commended, Stiller added, "for her intelligence and her forthrightness. I think she's calling it the way she sees it, and in terms of constituency on the committee, it certainly brings another perspective to the entire proceeding. Without Anna, it would be far different."

At the Dec. 4 meeting of the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee, Vrska was largely quiet, the spotlight off her this time. The panel voted on some suggested additions — a community garden, among them — for the park's northwest quadrant. Vrska didn't vote in favor of any of them.

At the beginning of the session, some of the hostility from the previous month had subsided. Vrska was there, a stack of red envelopes in her hand, greeting her colleagues. Everybody — Mensinger, her fellow committee members and city staff — got one.

When asked if she was giving out Christmas cards, Vrska quickly corrected the assumption: "Holiday cards."

[For the record, 9:07 a.m. Dec. 19: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Anna Vrska's boyfriend as her husband.]

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