In Costa Mesa’s first forum of this election season, candidates for City Council and mayor voiced their thoughts on local issues Monday night and tussled over how to address them before a boisterous crowd of more than 200 people during a Feet to the Fire event at Orange Coast College.
During roughly two hours, the discussion in the Robert B. Moore Theatre covered topics ranging from local homelessness to high-density development.
The forum was split into two segments, one with only the two candidates for mayor — current Mayor Sandy Genis and Councilwoman Katrina Foley — and the other featuring those running for the three other available council seats.
That setup gave the forum moderators — Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia, Los Angeles Times Community News Executive Editor John Canalis and Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. — an opportunity to press for details on why Genis and Foley, who were once political allies, now find themselves on opposing sides of an election battle.
Of particular interest was why Genis joined with two of her colleagues last year to remove Foley as mayor and appoint Genis to the position.
Genis said Monday that she felt Foley at times didn’t adhere to established policy, disregarded the council’s consensus on some matters or went beyond the scope of the mayor’s powers.
“It is not the mayor’s job to order the city manager around; it is the council as a whole that sets the policy,” Genis said. “It is not the mayor’s job to order around department heads.”
She also alleged that Foley had at times bullied city staff members, a claim that Foley strongly denied.
“You need to be respectful of each other, you need to be respectful of the policies, you need to be respectful of precedent,” Genis said. “And when you’re not, you throw out the checks and balances that are fundamental to our system of government. What we’re saying is … it’s OK to be a dictator if you’re a benign dictator? No.”
Foley disputed Genis’ claims about the rationale for the shakeup, characterizing them as vague or rooted in a false narrative.
The true motivation, Foley said, was politics. She believes some members of the council didn’t want her to have the mayor’s title during her current mayoral bid.
“It’s a partisan issue,” she said. “I have always tried to work across the aisle and be a bipartisan representative. Potholes are not a party issue. Sober living, it requires bipartisanship. It is so critical that we work with our colleagues across the aisle.”
Foley said her positions on issues have been consistent and that “the only person that has changed is Ms. Genis.”
“I have always been somebody who advocates for what they believe; somebody who stands up when no one else is; somebody who is not unwilling to be the lone person out on the plank knowing that you’re the lone vote because you know that it’s what’s right,” she said.
This year marks the first time Costa Mesa residents will cast ballots directly for mayor. It’s also the first time City Council members will be elected by districts, with voters in designated areas choosing a candidate to represent them.
Seats are up for election in District 3, which includes College Park, Mesa del Mar and a portion of the upper Eastside; District 4, which covers a dense portion of the Westside south of the Fairview Developmental Center; and District 5, which wraps around District 4, taking in downtown and the remainder of the Westside.
Homelessness was one of the main topics during Monday’s forum. Largely, the candidates said they felt Costa Mesa should do its fair share to combat the problem but that other cities need to do the same.
“There are many, many locales across the county that have to pull their own weight,” said District 4 candidate Steve Chan.
“Costa Mesa is doing a lot right now,” said Arlis Reynolds, who is running in District 5. “I think we need to continue to meet our commitments and then really put the pressure on other cities in the region.”
Development of permanent supportive housing, rather than just shelter beds, is another strategy that could be explored further, candidates said.
Though the Fairview Developmental Center — a 114-acre, state-owned property at 2501 Harbor Blvd. — could present future opportunities in that regard, some candidates said it’s also important to ensure the site isn’t viewed as the magic bullet for the entire county’s homeless problem.
“I’m concerned that if we open the doors at Fairview Developmental Center, which we do not own yet or may never own, we become the county’s solution to everything,” said Mayor Pro Tem Allan Mansoor, who is running in District 5.
Rebecca Trahan, also a candidate in District 5, said another option could be “tearing down some of the problem, drug-ridden motels and allowing [the] homeless to have housing there, helping them get back on their feet.”
District 4 candidate Michelle Figueredo-Wilson said it’s vital for the Costa Mesa community to have “a seat at that decision-making table.”
“We’re going to have to find somewhere to put these people so that we can help them,” she said. “I think from a policy standpoint, we need to be able to have the mechanisms in place as the city to say this housing isn’t working.”
Candidates also were asked for their thoughts about high-density development and whether such projects may become more necessary in Costa Mesa, given the scarcity of vacant land.
Manuel Chavez, a candidate in District 4, said “no one is opposed to new housing” but that any development needs to be done thoughtfully.
“It’s an issue of, if we’re going to develop, we need to develop intelligently,” he said.
District 3 candidate Andrea Marr said additional density might make sense in some areas of the city — such as north of the 405 Freeway — but that such projects aren’t appropriate everywhere.
“I recognize the need to build more housing, but we’ve just got to be so much smarter about the way in which we plan our city,” she said.
“In an R1 [residential] neighborhood and things like that, no, we don’t need skyscrapers,” said fellow District 3 candidate Brett Eckles.