Money, police and who can talk: Costa Mesa council candidates dig into issues at Feet to the Fire Forum

Rita Simpson, left, Mayor Jim Righeimer and Christopher Bunyan and the other city council candidates laugh during a light moment at the Feet to the Fire forum on Thursday at Orange Coast College.

It was another night of Costa Mesa politics: booing, hissing, jeering, cheering, clapping and yelling on topics ranging from development and a city charter to Police Department staffing, 60th-anniversary overspending and an extortion lawsuit.

The hissing and cheering wasn’t coming from the stage, but from a few of the 200 audience members who attended Thursday night’s Feet to the Fire Forum in Orange Coast College’s Robert B. Moore Theatre.

The political talk show format pitted seven of the eight City Council candidates alongside the moderators: Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia, Editor John Canalis, City Editor Alicia Lopez and Voice of OC Editor Norberto Santana Jr.

Answering the questions — and sometimes taking the crowd’s criticism or praise — were former Councilman Jay Humphrey, retired accountant Al Melone, Mayor Jim Righeimer, sports agent Christopher Bunyan, political aide Tony Capitelli, retired Automobile Club of Southern California consultant Rita Simpson and retired businessman Lee Ramos.

School board Trustee Katrina Foley did not attend.

Although all candidates were given chances to speak and occasionally debate one another, at times during the 90-minute event Righeimer, as the only council member seeking reelection, received the brunt of interrogation when it came to answering for 60th-anniversary-party spending last summer, his lawsuit against the Costa Mesa Police Assn. and its former law firm over allegations of extortion, and changing the public comments structure at council meetings.

Citing confidential personnel matters, Righeimer said he couldn’t speak about why former Public Affairs Manager Dan Joyce, the anniversary’s head organizer, recently received a $170,225 settlement. He also cited problems with the party, which went over budget and cost more than $500,000.

“The procurement system of the city was not followed. Period,” Righeimer said.

Humphrey called for a public audit of the three-day party’s finances and said it was wrong for City Hall to spend money on a party “when we have fire stations that are falling apart.”

When asked why he wouldn’t “extend the olive branch” and drop his lawsuit against Costa Mesa’s police union — which stems from a 2012 incident involving a false DUI report against Righeimer by a private investigator hired by the union’s law firm at the time — Righeimer said it was because of the other side’s failure to respond to the allegations under oath.

“If they would do depositions and show that they’re clean, we’re done,” he said. “But they refuse to do that.”

Bunyan, who is campaigning against many of Righeimer’s and the council majority’s recent decisions, said the majority’s actions — such as texting during meetings, “trash talk” toward speakers and not accepting criticism — would get them fired from a job at In-N-Out Burger.

Bunyan vowed to change Righeimer’s public comment policy to allow for unlimited speakers at the beginning of council meetings, rather than 10 randomly chosen speakers.

Humphrey, who also opposes the council majority, said the lawsuit against the police union is “all proof positive why there is such acrimony between the Police Department and the City Council.” That is why, he said, the department has a hard time recruiting experienced officers from other departments.

Melone recommended recruiting officers from other states who might want to escape harsher climates to work in Costa Mesa. He also called on City Hall to fund its reserves more robustly.

Capitelli, whose campaign platform includes addressing the city’s homeless population, called for an end to the hostility plaguing Costa Mesa politics. He said it has extended into police officers wanting to leave for other cities.

“It’s one of those issues where perception is reality,” Capitelli said.

On the issue of rehabilitation/sober-living homes, Ramos also expressed sentiment about unifying a “politically fractured” city.

“We’ve got to find a way to come together,” Ramos said. “And I think if we come together, we can get out of this.”

Melone said the city’s steps in addressing rehab homes have been positive but that the city needs to be careful not to get involved in litigation.

“You don’t want multimillion-dollar lawsuits to haunt the city for years to come,” he said.

Simpson said she favors the proposed city charter, dubbed Measure O on the Nov. 4 ballot, because it would institute a stronger home-rule system.

On development, Simpson called for “thoughtful” projects that would add residents to the city’s tax base. Each project must be considered on an individual basis, she said.

She also praised traffic mitigation efforts of new development.

Bunyan used the development issue to criticize Righeimer, whom he called “hypocritical” for protesting Orange Coast College’s expansion plans while “rubber-stamping” approvals for other developments.

When asked about the development variances being approved at City Hall, Righeimer said those types of changes have been occurring throughout the city’s history, making the council’s recent decisions nothing new.

The forum will be aired on Costa Mesa’s public-access television station, CMTV, and on the website of KOCI/101.5 FM.

The next Feet to the Fire, this time for Newport Beach City Council candidates, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Oasis Senior Center, 801 Narcissus Ave., Newport Beach.