The show of unity by dozens of Costa Mesa Police Assn. members, who packed the City Council Chambers Tuesday night, points to increasing political tension between Planning Commission Chairman Jim Righeimer and the police union.
Righeimer, a City Council candidate, is under fire from police for getting out of his car during a DUI checkpoint and arguing with officers over whether it made sense to screen for drunk drivers before an Estancia High School football game, slowing traffic to a snail's pace.
"It's pure politics," Righeimer said. "It's because of my position on pay and benefits."
During an Aug. 18 City Council forum debate, Righeimer repeatedly pointed his finger to the back of the room where representatives from the police and fire unions were present. Righeimer warned that the Police and Fire departments are watching carefully and are ready to bring down any candidate who stands in the way of their pension reform.
The city is in the middle of negotiations with its five union groups to find a way to close the budget deficit.
Although the police union plans to come out against Righeimer's candidacy for council, union President Allen Rieckhof contends that assertions that the planning commissioner abused his power at the checkpoint have nothing to do with contract negotiations nor with his philosophy on pension reform.
"Righeimer has no control over contract negotiations," Rieckhof said. "He will not have any control because it's the current council that has control over our contract. The public is mixing it up, thinking it's us against Righeimer. It's not because of political purpose."
Righeimer simply stepped out of line when he threatened to call Police Chief Chris Shawkey to shut down the operation, Rieckhof said.
"He created this situation," Rieckhof said. "He didn't just ask questions; he started making demands, throwing his weight around as a planning commissioner, and when he didn't get a reaction, he riled up some bystanders."
Righeimer could have used a different approach to handle the situation, Rieckhof said, stressing that there's nothing wrong with asking questions. He could have called or e-mailed his concerns to the police chief or the traffic commander.
But Righeimer said he's not the type of person who watches on the sidelines. He claims he saw several near-accidents because of the traffic.
"Was it better to not do anything? I'm the kind of person who's going to say something right now," he said. "I don't drive by an accident and don't get out of my car. I've always been that way."
Councilwoman Wendy Leece supports both the investigation into what happened and the DUI checkpoints, saying that with the number of bars in Costa Mesa, the checkpoints save lives.
Mayor Allan Mansoor said it's critical to be objective until the city attorney completes her investigation.
"Nobody has all of the facts," he said. "It's difficult to jump to any conclusions just yet because no one has all of the facts."
Asked if the incident between police and Righeimer, who is close to a majority of the council members, has put the council in an awkward position, Mansoor said: "Things can always be done differently in hindsight. Until we know all the facts, it's difficult to jump to any conclusions."
Asked if he spoke privately to Righeimer about the DUI checkpoint incident, Mansoor wouldn't give a direct answer, but said, "Jim is a good guy and I support him, I talk to him."
Councilman Gary Monahan, who voted against accepting the California Office of Traffic Safety grants that fund the checkpoints, also reserved judgment.
Monahan, a restaurant and bar owner, also criticized the time and location of the checkpoint, questioning whether it was worth the money and trouble when only two people were arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving.
But Costa Mesa Homicide Det. Dana Potts, who lost his pregnant fiancée and unborn daughter to a drunk driver 22 years ago, said catching suspected drunks is more than worth it.