Debate tackles topics of the day

COSTA MESA — Thursday night's Feet to the Fire Forum, a candidates' debate organized by Orange County media, began with an issue right out of recent headlines: Planning Commissioner Jim Righeimer's decision to get out of his car during a DUI checkpoint and speak with officers over the wisdom of staging the screening on Harbor Boulevard during the evening rush-hour.

When Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit asked Righeimer about whether he would seek a law banning DUI checkpoints at such hours, Righeimer took the opportunity to say that the tapes released from the Sept. 16 public disagreement exonerated him. The candidate sounds calm on the recordings.

Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis the quizzed Righeimer as to why he had his personal attorney send a letter threatening legal action against police union officials and a local blogger in hopes of stopping them from publicizing falsehoods about him.

The candidate said he was just trying to stop any misinformation getting out. Costa Mesa police are expected to campaign against him, due to his desire to trim retirement packages in the cash-strapped city.

"I have a family, a business and a reputation to keep in this community," Righeimer, a former Pilot columnist, said.

At times, council candidates from both cities interrupted one another, and the journalists tried to cut them off, sometimes to no avail. Newport City Council candidates dominated much of the conversation, and some of the Costa Mesa participants said they felt left out.

Though some of the answers were lost in the noise, Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia, who hosted the event in the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center, was generally able to keep the conversation moving.

One issue that dominated the discussion during the forum was whether to accept union endorsements, particularly in an era where the generous pensions given to public employees have become hot-button issues.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece said she is not accepting endorsements from the police and firefighter unions, but for her, that doesn't mean all relations with them should be severed.

"I have a good relationship with them," she said. "We value our police officers and firefighters."

Newport Beach City Council candidate Rush Hill said police and firefighters shouldn't be equated to the mismanagement on the part of the federal and state governments.

"If they offer the endorsement, I would take that endorsement. I wouldn't take donations from them," he said. "I'm my own person and able to deal with those types of things. I have a long history of not feeling comfortable with unions and the approach they've taken. I use the same rhetoric when I'm talking about the state and federal governments, but not with city government; it's different."

"No one is disputing that police, firefighters and lifeguards are darn important to our community," said Ed Reno, Hill's opponent.

Newport Beach District 4 incumbent Leslie Daigle said she had several chances to vote to increase benefits, and but didn't, stating, "Everyone knows my record." Still, she added, she has maintained good relationships with public-safety employees.

Drawing applause from the audience was Costa Mesa candidate Chris McEvoy, who said, "It's not just about the unions. It's about big businesses — don't just pick on the unions."

Mark Tabbert, who is challenging Daigle, offered a rhyme to Newport Beach Independent Editor Roger Bloom about retaining the noise covenant at John Wayne Airport .

"Curfew forever or John Wayne never," he said.

Reno said expansions would diminish qualify of life in Newport — a point on which all of the Newport candidates appeared to agree.

Asked for the Costa Mesa viewpoint, McEvoy said, "If it's going to affect you guys, it's going to affect us. If we're promoting that, we're a bad neighbor."

When Canalis asked Costa Mesa candidate Sue Lester about what some had termed a single-issue candidacy — medical marijuana — she disagreed.

"I will tell you that cannabis got me to the first City Council meeting, but it was everything else I heard that made me stay to the end and continue to go," said Lester. "I have a lot to offer."

Costa Mesa candidate Chad Petschl was in agreement with McEvoy and Lester that there should not be an outright ban on marijuana in the city if Californians vote to legalize the drug for recreational use in November.

Leece favored continuing Costa Mesa's ban on medical marijuana clinics, and Righeimer said he was undecided.

The Orange County Fairgrounds sale also became a significant issue. Leece was grilled by Voice of OC Editor Norberto Santana Jr. on what some have called a lack of transparency and the process the city chose to take in its attempt to buy the fairgrounds from the state.

"[Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger] had a gun to our head as far as deadlines," Leece said. "We felt that a lot of it was confidential."

The building of a new Newport Beach city hall also caused heated arguments by the candidates, but humor also played a role.

"If things become too expensive, we're not going to do the espresso bar," Daigle quipped.

Hill said the new city hall got bigger as the community demanded more out of it during the planning process.

"The public came in and said, 'You know what? We want a community center.' That made sense," Hill said. "Another group said … 'We want an emergency operation center.' What's next? The library people came in…"

Some issues expected to be discussed didn't make it due to time constraints, including Banning Ranch development and the recently pulled proposal to install electronic signs at Costa Mesa's Triangle Square.

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