Costa Mesa declines to film and air Eastside political forum

Citing concerns about political neutrality, Costa Mesa’s public-access television channel will not tape and air an upcoming City Council candidates forum being hosted by a community organization, city officials said Thursday.

The Eastside Costa Mesa Neighbors’ Group forum, scheduled for Oct. 2, will not be one of the two forums that CMTV plans to film and air this election season, city spokesman Bill Lobdell said.

The city made its decision based on the advice of its special counsel in charge of election issues, Lobdell said. The Eastside group asked CMTV for coverage last week, he said.

Others have raised questions about the organizers’ impartiality. They argue that the council majority and those supportive of the majority were posed harder questions at a similar event two years ago. However, Eastside organizers contend that their group is apolitical and that City Hall is biased for skipping out on their event this year.

The city’s counsel — Mal Richardson of Best, Best and Krieger — advised Costa Mesa “to be politically neutral and, therefore, it should not utilize public resources for the recording and broadcasting of political debates hosted by private entities,” Lobdell said in a news release.

Richardson also “expressed concern that once the city agreed to participate in one political debate, it would have legal difficulty declining the request of any other group wanting the city to record and broadcast its debate,” Lobdell added.

The city will still honor its commitment to film the Sept. 18 Feet to the Fire Forum, which the Daily Pilot sponsors with Voice of OC and the Orange County Register. It also maintained its earlier agreement to film Mesa Verde Community Inc.'s Aug. 21 forum.

Eastside Costa Mesa Neighbors Director Denise Moon was critical of the city’s decision not to film her organization’s forum.

“Not only did it seem biased, they actually had to pay a lawyer to tell them that it was OK for them to do this,” she said.

The forum “is not a political event,” Moon added. “It’s purely an opportunity for the candidates to speak.”

Council candidate Lee Ramos said Thursday that he does not plan to attend the Eastside forum.

Ramos added that his campaign committee decided some time ago not to attend the Eastside and Mesa Verde forums, only Feet to the Fire. He complimented the two community associations and the work they do.

“I have many friends on both sides,” Ramos said. “I have no disrespect to them at all.”

The other candidates — school board Trustee Katrina Foley, former Councilman Jay Humphrey, Banning Ranch advocate Christopher Bunyan, retired accountant Al Melone, congressional aide Tony Capitelli and retired Automobile Club consultant Rita Simpson — plan to participate, Moon said.

Mayor Jim Righeimer, who is up fo reelection, said Friday that he also plans to attend.

Since 2008, Eastside Costa Mesa Neighbors has hosted three candidate forums. According to the group’s website, it has arranged community picnics and an informational session about local issues, including the development of Banning Ranch, the proposed sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds and limits on flights at John Wayne Airport.

The group also has fought the addition of LED advertisements at The Triangle shopping and entertainment center.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who participated in the group’s 2012 debate as a candidate, said he was disappointed in how that event was run. It had “slanted” questions that favored some candidates and not others, he said.

“I agree with the city’s position,” Mensinger said. “I was very disappointed in the unethical use of partisan questions in the 2012 debate.... I came to the conclusion that the Eastside neighbors group is a political action group, not a community forum.”

Righeimer agreed. Some of the questions in 2012 were specific to the candidates, he said, not the same set of questions that all candidates could evenly answer.

“That’s not how a debate is done,” Righeimer said, adding that it would be equally unfair if city resources were used to film an event sponsored by the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., which supports the council majority.

On Friday, Righeimer issued a statement saying that while he agreed with the city’s attempt to be politically neutral, “I do think it’s very important for these debates to gain the largest possible audience.”

As such, Righeimer said he is committed to paying half of the cost of recording and broadcasting the Eastside group’s debate. Specifics of his plan were unclear.

“I’m hoping my fellow council candidates will join me in this effort to make sure Costa Mesa voters are as informed as possible before casting their votes in November,” Righeimer added in his statement.

Eastside Costa Mesa Neighbors calls itself “a neighborhood organization that is committed to maintaining and improving the quality of life in Eastside Costa Mesa.”

Its mission statement says, “We have come together as neighbors and advocates to the City Council and city staff to work collaboratively with them, to make sure our needs are heard and that this special neighborhood retains and continues to improve its unique character.”