Supervisorial candidates spar at Feet to the Fire forum

Orange County Supervisor District 2 candidate Michelle Steele defends her position as she participates in the Feet to the Fire Forum on Monday.
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

Candidates for the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ 2nd District seat sparred over pensions, problem-solving and their community ties Monday night in a debate that took on something of a wonkish tone.

The four are vying to replace Supervisor John Moorlach, who will be termed out next year.

About 160 community members gathered at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center for the seventh Feet to the Fire forum, where candidates for local or regional office meet with a panel of journalists in an informal TV talk show-style discussion.

Moderator and columnist Barbara Venezia, sporting her signature scarlet leather vest and pants ensemble decorated with yellow flames, prodded the debate along at a steady clip.

But it was the first question of the night that may have set its course.

If elected, Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis asked, “Would you be willing to forego your pension?”

Supervisors can opt out of taking a public employee pension — a symbolic move, given the tense climate surrounding the board’s contract negotiations with county employee unions.

Candidate Michelle Steel, a Republican state Board of Equalization member who leads the pack in fundraising by a wide margin, answered in one word: “Yes.”

Republican Huntington Beach Councilman and former mayor Joe Carchio, likewise, said yes without hesitation, adding that he hasn’t taken a pension in his city role and wouldn’t start now.

Jim Moreno, a Democratic Coast Community College District trustee who worked as a deputy to a Los Angeles County supervisor for years, said he would accept the pension but use it to provide grants to nonprofits.

“I would accumulate that and put it back into the community,” he said.

Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) said that he would “probably” take the pension.

“I don’t have a home in (Rancho) Palos Verdes and Orange County,” he said, apparently jabbing at Steel. “I’m not independently wealthy.”

Mansoor specified that he would take “the lesser” pension. However, in June 2012, voters approved a measure that requires all supervisors elected from that point forward to take the smallest pension available, if they decide to take one at all.

From there, the candidates launched into a discussion about unfunded pension liabilities and government waste.

All four agreed that government tends to overspend and that with careful analysis, those sources of waste could be uncovered.

Steel said she’d target welfare fraud first, while Moreno said he would let employees suggest cuts within their own departments before taking broader action.

Still, none named any specific county services that they felt should get the ax or detailed any plans for reforming the county’s employee pension model.

Soon, talk turned toward candidates’ political chops — and whether those experiences were relevant to the challenges facing an Orange County supervisor.

While Mansoor — who was until recently planning to run for re-election to the Assembly — has faced criticism that he “jumped ship,” as Venezia put it, Steel has been painted as a state politician from Los Angeles County – she moved to Surfside a few years ago – stomping into a local race.

With a campaign war chest of more than a half million dollars, Steel has raised more than five times as much money as second-place fundraiser Mansoor, who said he’s taken in almost $100,000.

Mansoor said he chose to run because he felt he was best suited to represent the community.

Steel, meanwhile, said she’s long had business connections to Orange County, including an office in Irvine, and that she’s well qualified to broker compromise in tough situations.

Moreno and Carchio both boasted long resumes working with various regional agencies.

For more information about the Feet to the Fire forum series, or to watch video of past discussions, go to Next, Costa Mesa City Council Candidates will meet at Orange Coast college on Sept. 18.