Righeimer remembers: Costa Mesa’s controversial former councilman looks back as he steps away
Jim Righeimer has heard it all.
He’s aware of the claims that he’s some sort of puffed-up power broker — a caricature cutting devious backroom deals. He knows some believe his focus as a Costa Mesa City Council member was trained more on securing sweeteners for developers and political allies rather than serving his constituents.
As he put it during an interview, his time in local politics seemed to largely boil down to “Riggy this” or “Riggy that.”
When Righeimer stormed onto the local political scene a dozen years ago, he brought a distinctive brand of governance — either bold or bare-knuckle, depending on your perspective — that helped usher in one of the most tumultuous periods in the city’s history.
The results led some to lionize him as a principled, conservative representative who stuck to his guns and spearheaded vital battles for fiscal restraint, streamlined government and community reinvestment, even when political winds blew against him. Others, however, deride him as a tempestuous ideologue who was dismissive of Costa Mesa’s character, unsympathetic to the needs of its residents and uncompromising in his tactics.
Though his eight-year tenure on the City Council — including a stint as mayor from 2012 to 2014 — is in the rear-view mirror after he was termed out of office last month, the debate over his legacy isn’t likely to end soon.
“No matter where we were on a position with any different group, I always did what I thought was best for the city,” Righeimer, 60, said at his office in Newport Beach. “It’s just as simple as that … whether people liked it or didn’t, that’s just what I did.”
And some didn’t like it.
“The bottom line is that Jim Righeimer’s priorities were not Costa Mesa’s or the residents of Costa Mesa’s priorities,” said Wendy Leece, his council colleague from 2010 to 2014. “His priority was to change the focus at City Hall to development rather than public safety.”
Steve Mensinger, who served with Righeimer on the council from 2011 to 2016, was far more complimentary.
“Jim was a person that wasn’t afraid to take on tough issues, and he changed the course of Costa Mesa by virtue of addressing those issues,” he said.
Righeimer quickly jumped into the political fray after moving to the city’s Mesa Verde neighborhood in 2006.
Just months after relocating from nearby Fountain Valley — his home for the previous 18 years — Righeimer was appointed to the Costa Mesa Planning Commission, which reviews matters related to development and land use.
He was hardly a political neophyte at that point. As a professional developer — he’s currently chief executive of Arbor Capital Partners LLC — Righeimer had appeared before enough commissions and councils to know what it took to shepherd a project through City Hall. He also had served as campaign chairman for then-Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for state Assembly in 2000.
Ironically, Righeimer said the most appealing thing about the Planning Commission appointment was Costa Mesa’s relative lack of planning. As locals are fond of saying, the city is eclectic — a place where high-rise towers, hip commercial centers, tidy housing tracts and one of the nation’s most well-known malls meld into a unique smorgasbord.
“It had really a lot of opportunities, which a lot of planned cities just don’t have,” he said.
Righeimer, though, had big plans for the city. Some of his ideas even lined the pages of the Daily Pilot, where he wrote a column, “Rigonomics,” from May 2007 through January 2010.
After coming up short in his first City Council bid in 2008, Righeimer won election in 2010.
During that campaign, he raised concerns about the pension benefits that Costa Mesa afforded its employees — a topic that would become the defining issue of his political life and touch off a feud with associations representing those workers.
Righeimer and his council allies took the battle to new heights in March 2011, when they targeted 18 city services for potential outsourcing — sending pink slips to more than 200 Costa Mesa employees. At the time, the city had 472 full-time workers.
To some, the move was an audacious shot across the bow of local public employee unions whose members were the very people responsible for keeping the city safe and running smoothly. Righeimer and his supporters, though, viewed it as less dramatic and more pragmatic. They argued that private companies could provide the same services without adding to Costa Mesa’s long-term retirement costs.
“The structure of the pension agreements [was] just so unsustainable, just on its face,” Righeimer said. “It wasn’t real hard math. ... How do you give somebody 90% of their pay for another 30 years after they retire?”
That reasoning did little to quell the fierce and emotionally charged debate that followed.
The privatization push drew a lawsuit from the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn., which represents non-public-safety workers. The council ultimately abandoned the bulk of its outsourcing plan and settled the suit in 2015, though some services — including the city jail and street sweeping — shifted to the private sector.
Nick Berardino — the former general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., which is affiliated with the CMCEA — said Righeimer demonstrated “total misunderstanding … when it comes to the role of government and the important role it plays.”
“He was just single-minded, you know?” said Berardino, who retired in 2015. “He didn’t ever demonstrate that he had an open mind, and he truly lacked compassion. He ... saw his life at that time in terms of his political future.”
“The pension issue is just as serious for every community as it is for Costa Mesa, but Jim used it as a platform to just cause people to think he could solve the problem in Costa Mesa,” said Leece, the only council member at the time to vote against the outsourcing plan. “He didn’t.”
Current Councilman Allan Mansoor, on the other hand, said Righeimer deserves credit for seeking a bold solution to a pressing problem.
“Certainly, in hindsight, things always could be done better or different,” Mansoor said. “But were we in difficult times? Absolutely, and difficult times require difficult decisions. I’m sure he did what he thought was best at the time.”
Mensinger, who supported the outsourcing push, said he thinks Righeimer is “going to be found to be 100% right in the end.”
“Looking at outsourcing functions is the right thing to do,” he said. “It was very painful, very disruptive, but Jim’s a disruptor, and that’s what you need for a city that’s looking to right itself.”
In January 2011, Costa Mesa faced a $110-million unfunded pension liability, according to a city official at the time. Six years later, that number swelled to a projected $246 million for fiscal 2017-18.
The city’s most recent adopted budget included funding for 480 full-time employees, though actual staffing has been far below budgeted levels in recent years.
Surveillance and investigation
Though he wasn’t on the ballot, Righeimer still found himself in the center of attention ahead of the city’s closely watched 2012 council election.
In the lead-up to Election Day, authorities say, the now-defunct law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir — which formerly represented the Costa Mesa Police Assn. — hired two private investigators to dig up dirt on Righeimer, Mensinger and then-Councilman Gary Monahan.
One of the investigators, Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, tailed Righeimer as he drove away from Monahan’s Costa Mesa bar and restaurant and called 911 to report that Righeimer was swerving in and out of lanes, according to prosecutors and testimony. Righeimer later passed a field sobriety test administered by a Costa Mesa police officer at his home.
Lanzillo and the other investigator, Scott Alan Impola, also were accused of using a GPS device to illegally track Mensinger.
Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mensinger filed a civil lawsuit in 2013 alleging that the police association and the law firm had intimidated and harassed them for political gain.
“They’re putting tracking devices on our cars,” Righeimer said. “What are we supposed to do — do what everybody else does and just roll over and say, ‘Yeah, we don’t want to cause any hassles here’?”
The three agreed to settle the suit last year for $607,500. None of that money came directly from the police union, which has consistently maintained it had no previous knowledge of any wrongdoing.
Lanzillo pleaded guilty in September 2016 to four felony counts and was sentenced to 364 days in county jail and three years’ formal probation. Impola, who had pleaded not guilty to all charges, died of natural causes in July 2017.
Though Righeimer’s reelection bid in 2014 was free of that kind of controversy, it was a dogfight. When the dust settled, he secured a second four-year term by only 47 votes.
Also that year, voters roundly rejected Righeimer’s push to adopt a city charter — a sort of local constitution — as they had in 2012. While he and his allies maintained that such a document would save money and give Costa Mesa greater control over its affairs, critics lambasted the proposal as an attempted power grab.
Geoff West, a longtime Costa Mesa resident who chronicled City Hall for more than a decade on his blog, “A Bubbling Cauldron,” has called Righeimer “the worst thing that ever happened to our city,” characterizing him as a manipulative bully who was more interested in foisting his vision on the city than listening to residents.
“He really didn’t care … what the people thought,” West said. “He had his ideas and he was going to do it.”
Mensinger, however, praised Righeimer for never being afraid to speak his mind.
“I think most people understand Jim but don’t want to admit that he’s right,” Mensinger said. “Jim says what everybody else is thinking but might be afraid to say.”
Righeimer thinks some of his biggest accomplishments are visible to anyone driving around town.
A major focus during his time behind the dais was maintaining and improving local infrastructure, and a steady flow of funds streamed to everything from road and alley repairs to bigger items such as the under-construction library at Lions Park.
“We basically took what’s a very, very large city budget and we focused more of it on improving the actual structure of the city,” Righeimer said.
Mansoor agreed. “That’s a really big improvement for our city,” he said. “And he was able to put a lot of funds together so that we are not saddled with as much debt.”
Righeimer said he’s also proud of the recruitment of Vans, which moved its corporate headquarters to Costa Mesa in 2017, and naming The Farm sports complex on Fairview Road after Jack Hammett — a Navy veteran, Pearl Harbor survivor and former mayor.
Leece, though, said Righeimer’s legacy may be that he inspired the wider community to oppose his policies.
“He literally woke up a whole town and united hundreds of us, maybe thousands, who wanted a clean, safe city who vigorously … mobilized and organized across party lines because we took great offense to his takeover of our city and a top-down imposition of his ideas of how to govern,” she said. “Jim tried to run our city like a business, but the role of government is not to make a profit but to serve and protect its citizens.”
Berardino believes Righeimer’s tenure “will go down as a very dark period for the city of Costa Mesa.”
“He ushered in a huge dark cloud that remained over that city for a long time,” he said. “A lot of pain and heartbreak for lots and lots of people — that’s, unfortunately, what he left behind.”
Mensinger, however, thinks Righeimer ultimately will be remembered as a “great father and a man that was unafraid to address the unspoken issues.”
“The ultimate losers in the future are going to be the taxpayers that elect people that aren’t like Jim and that are afraid to address the issues that Jim did address on a daily basis,” Mensinger said. “Unsustainable pensions, unrepaired roads … [there are] politicians with excuses. Jim is a man of action.”
Though his time on the council has ended, Righeimer said he doesn’t plan to go anywhere.
He said he’ll stay engaged on local issues — particularly in pushing the city to resist proposals to develop housing on commercial property north of the 405 Freeway, which he believes could imperil the chances of attracting and retaining large employers.
But another run for political office isn’t in the cards at this point, he said.
As he reflected on his time behind the dais, Righeimer recalled the Jesuit high school he attended near his hometown of Lincolnshire, Ill.
There, he was introduced to a concept that would soon become one of his core beliefs — that the most important thing a person can do is find ways to improve the lives of those around them.
Righeimer believes he followed that tenet, though it didn’t always lead him down the most convenient or popular path.
“You can’t back down,” he said. “You got elected to do what you thought was right. And right wouldn’t be just to walk away.”
He paused, then added with a laugh, “It would’ve been easier.”
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