With the next Feet to the Fire Forum just around the corner for Costa Mesa council candidates, political rumblings are starting to surface.
One place I hadn’t expected to see crackling controversy is within Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, also known as CM4RG.
The group touts itself as a “grass roots, non-partisan organization formed to encourage and promote high levels of openness, accountability, integrity and responsiveness in our city government,” according to its website.
In the spirit of that openness, Charles Mooney, former vice president of CM4RG, is now questioning the group’s core precepts.
He feels CM4RG is guilty of exactly what it complains about in city government — a lack of transparency.
Mooney, who resigned his board post Aug. 11 but remains a member, tells me he’s grown uncomfortable with CM4RG’s perceived influence and that the public needs to know there’s actually a small group of people making the decisions and wielding this influence.
He questions CM4RG’s endorsements of council candidates Katrina Foley and Jay Humphrey, two former members of the council seeking new terms in the Nov. 4 election.
“I participated in the endorsement process but was disappointed in how it was conducted this year,” Mooney says.
Mooney explained endorsement interviews were observed by 11 to 15 board and general members. He questions the appropriateness of having two current City Council members, Wendy Leece and Sandy Genis, on the interviewing committee.
Genis feels it was appropriate because who better for this task than someone who knows city issues firsthand and what being on the council entails. She has attended endorsement meetings at the Orange County Republican Central Committee, which include many “electeds,” and takes exception to Mooney’s concerns.
CM4RG interviews were conducted with Foley and Humphrey as well as candidates Tony Capitelli and Harold Weitzberg.
Of those not interviewed, candidate Chris Bunyan hadn’t yet filed his intention-to-run papers, Lee Ramos didn’t respond to the group’s interview request, Rita Simpson entered the race too late to be interviewed and Mayor Jim Righeimer wasn’t invited.
Interviewees were asked questions about their backgrounds, their positions on issues — pretty much what one might expect, Mooney says.
Mooney says that during the CM4RG interview process, he observed the councilwomen trying to “help” their respective favored candidates by answering for them.
Genis says she did no such thing.
I sent Leece an email requesting her side of the story but didn’t hear back.
Mooney also claims that some questions were “not as challenging for Humphrey and Foley as they were for Weitzberg” and felt several were not based on facts or verifiable sources but rather on rumors and innuendo.
“I felt like they were trying to embarrass him to diminish his likelihood of being endorsed,” Mooney says of the questions directed at Weitzberg.
And Mooney says he was disturbed when Genis made a comment about Weitzberg’s name not sounding like a “Costa Mesa name” and questioned his electability at an open membership meeting discussing endorsements.
Mary Ann O’Connell, CM4RG’s former recording secretary, says she quit the organization last year because of inconsistency in the way it was being run. She says Genis’ comment about Weitzberg’s name had anti-Semitic undertones.
Genis denies that.
“We were talking about polling data and name recognition,” she says. “I was trying to explain he had an uphill battle. I’m certainly not anti-Semitic.”
Explaining the awkwardness of names, Genis says, “If you have a name like O’Connell it doesn’t occur to you, but if you have a name like Genis it does.”
Her name was used against her in the last election. Genis found her campaign signs defiled — vandals had changed the “G” in her name to a “P.”
O’Connell, who served on a city committee with Weitzberg, isn’t buying the “awkward name” argument.
“Sandy may have an awkward name, but she also was a top vote-getter (in the last election),” O’Connell says. “And so then, how do you explain the election of [Steve] Mensinger and Righeimer?”
Ultimately, Humphrey and Foley received CM4RG’s endorsement, prompting Weitzberg to withdraw from the race.
“Why wouldn’t they endorse Harold?” O’Connell argues. “You have a member who’s fully behind your mission statement. Katrina had little to no interest in the group the last year.”
Weitzberg is, in fact, one of the founders of CM4RG. He says he’s not ready to comment about the endorsement process.
But CM4RG President Robin Leffler, whose son is married to Weitzberg’s daughter, says, “Everyone who worked on this strove to make the process fair and impartial.”
She praises Mooney’s participation, saying he was one of the architects of the endorsement process from beginning to end and organized the questions.
“I don’t think we could have done it without Charlie,” Leffler says.
Genis acknowledges that Mooney is a strong supporter of Weitzberg and is unhappy with the outcome.
“I think we need to work together to get the best candidates, and I’m disappointed that Charlie has chosen to do this,” Genis says.
But in talking to Mooney and O’Connell this week, both say the voting public should take the CM4RG endorsements with a grain of salt.
“CM4RG has lost its vision and is more about power than what is in the best interests of the community,” says O’Connell.
Never a dull moment in Costa Mesa politics …
(The Feet to the Fire Forum will be held Sept. 18 in the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the forum is from 7 to 8 p.m.)
BARBARA VENEZIA, whose column appears Fridays, lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.