As social service activists cautiously applauded Costa Mesa's decision not to immediately withhold funds from groups that aid illegal aliens, a rift developed Wednesday between two city councilmen who had previously supported each other on the issue.
The council, led by Mayor Peter F. Buffa, voted 3 to 2 on Tuesday to make the measure voluntary, effectively killing it for at least a year.
Councilman Orville Amburgey, who had originally proposed the so-called anti-alien funding policy with backing from Buffa and Councilman Ed Glasgow, said he was "extremely disappointed" at the council's action and denounced the mayor's about-face as "cowardly."
"I'm sorry he didn't have the guts to stand by his position," Amburgey said. "Nothing has changed since (Buffa) first voted to support this measure and it is saddening that the city's top leader doesn't have the courage to do what he thinks is right."
Amburgey even raised the specter of a recall against Buffa and said he would support such an action. "I am not sure where the mayor was coming from last night, he didn't have the nerve to come out and say," he added.
Buffa characterized Amburgey's charges as "personal attacks" and said he did not consider Tuesday's action a reversal.
"There were just a great many questions raised . . . that we were not able to answer about the mechanics of how we would implement it," he said.
And he chided Amburgey for suggesting at Tuesday's meeting that city staffers, rather than the council, could best determine how the policy should be implemented.
"I don't think passing the buck to staff is exactly a qualification for the Medal of Valor," Buffa said.
City officials are waiting to hear from the Department of Housing and Urban Development on whether the policy violates federal guidelines that prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin.
Both Buffa and Amburgey suggested that HUD's ruling would play a key role in determining whether the policy is resurrected.
"The policy may remain if HUD is supportive, but we'll have to wait and see," Buffa said.
That possibility left some immigrants rights supporters uneasy, even as they applauded Tuesday's action.
"The introduction of that measure has had such a powerful effect on the community that the only way to counteract it was to have the same council rescind the policy," said Father Jaime Soto, chairman of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrants Rights. "As it stands, the issue will unfortunately surface again and voluntary, nonprofit agencies will again have to suffer the intrusion of government into how they choose to serve people of the community."
But many in the social service field said some good had come out of the controversy surrounding the policy.
"I think opposition to the measure is quite organized now, so if it rears its ugly head again we will be ready" said Lilia Serio Powell, vice chairwoman of the Hispanic Development Council of United Way. "I think the council's action sends a message to other cities that might be considering this. You are not just hurting illegal aliens, you will be hurting the entire community with that type of measure."
Rebecca Jurado, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Costa Mesa council failed to consider the broad implications of the policy.
Debate at Tuesday's meeting, in fact, revealed that the council could not even agree on which groups the policy was intended to target.
Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle, for example, argued that as currently worded the policy would impact such groups as South Coast Repertory, the Arts on the Green program and the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, all of which presumably would have to ensure that their programs did not serve illegal aliens.
"If you take the policy literally, no city services could be provided to people they felt were undocumented, like police services, trash disposal," Jurado said. "It had a much broader impact than just a policy statement. If any other cities are considering this, they should take heed of what happened in Costa Mesa."
Supporters of the policy argued that it was needed to stem a growing tide of illegal aliens attracted to the city's generous social services.
Amburgey and some residents had alleged that illegal aliens contributed to increase crime and overcrowding in the city.
Amburgey on Wednesday raised the possibility that his supporters would not let the policy die and would mount a referendum campaign, a tactic that before Tuesday's meeting he had said was unneeded.
"The response in the community has been overwhelmingly supportive," Amburgey said. "Whether the community would attempt a referendum I don't know, but I would support it."