COSTA MESA UNPLUGGED:

There’s two things I know about Councilwoman Wendy Leece. She is tenacious. Not necessarily a bad thing unless her teeth are buried in your neck.

But mix that tenacity with her curious habit of alienating those she works with in her various public-service capacities, and you begin to get why she is an orb of controversy and whispered disdain.

Remember it was the cut of Leece’s moral and spiritual jib that charted her heading while a member of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees. And so she seldom won the favor of her fellow trustees. Her record there is pretty widely branded as one of troublemaking rather than accomplishment.

These days, Leece occupies the vortex of another dust storm of her making over at the Costa Mesa Senior Center. The center is a valuable community resource for Costa Mesa’s elderly that’s run from a city-owned facility on 19th Street by a private nonprofit corporation.

Now, the Costa Mesa Senior Center’s membership roster boasts some 1,900 seniors. Having briefly served as a member of the center’s board of directors, I can tell you the vast majority of the seniors who visit the center and take advantage of its exceptional programs and services love the place.

A few don’t. And I mean a few. Like, maybe three. There are folks regularly disjointed over the board of directors’ refusal to cater to their every gripe or whim.

So when Leece showed up as the Costa Mesa City Council’s liaison to the senior center board (not a voting position on the board), the malcontents sank a fishing line in her ear. They bemoaned the quality of the center’s furniture. They complained about the center’s hours of operation.

They whined about how the center’s program director did his job. They didn’t like the location of the executive director’s office.

They accused staff members of taking money. And, strangely, they were put off that the board of directors wouldn’t present personnel and compensational information to them on demand.

In response, Leece launched a withering inquisition of the senior center’s board.

She’s peppered the all-volunteer body — made up of some of this community’s longest-standing, most respected citizens — with a litany of accusatory questions. More than 40 in all. And morale in the place has gone in the tank.

The problem is the bulk of her questions (and I’ve seen them) are plainly none of her business nor the business of the city.

That’s because Costa Mesa and the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation have a contractual agreement that says the senior center corporation “shall act as an independent agency and not as an officer, employee or agent of (the) city.”

But no matter. Leece has plowed ahead. She wants to know the salaries of the center’s executive director and all staff members. She’s asked for the vacation schedule of the executive director.

Board member resignation letters from 2006 to 2007? She wants those, too. She wants to know when certain board members were appointed, why other people weren’t appointed, as well as information from closed-session meetings related to the grievances of at least one member of the senior center.

Leece says she’s just “being responsible and ensuring that we practice good government, so taxpayers receive the services they expect.”

Her rationale, presumably, is based on the fact that the city rents the senior center facility to the senior center corporation for $1 a year, provides an on-site maintenance professional, and contributes $250,000 a year to center operations.

The problem is, the agreement between the center and the city doesn’t stipulate that the board of directors respond to any and all information requests because of the city’s contributions. It is, after all and according to the agreement, an independent agency.

If Leece wants answers to questions the board has no legal obligation to respond to, she needs to convince her council colleagues to cancel the city’s agreement with the senior center corporation and take over its operation. The tab, by the way, will cost taxpayers better than a million bucks a year.

Otherwise, her inquisition is out of bounds.


 Byron de Arakal is a former Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commissioner. Readers can reach him at cmunplugged@yahoo.com.

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