While civil service pay and pensions are frequent targets for criticism by political candidates in and outside of Costa Mesa, that's not all local police are focusing on when considering who to endorse, according to a questionnaire from the Costa Mesa Police Assn.
In a 13-question survey from the Costa Mesa Police Assn. that was presented to local City Council candidates and candidates for statewide office and obtained by the Daily Pilot, only two questions pertained to police retirements and more than half were general policy questions.
"We're there to see if the candidate has done their homework about what affects law enforcement," said Assn. President Allen Rieckhof. "We stay away from pay and benefits [questions]. We deal with that at the negotiation table with city negotiators. We're not endorsing a candidate in light of their view on giving us raises or not."
Indeed, none of the questions asked whether local police should be paid more or less. Eight questions sought the candidate's political philosophy on a range of issues. They were asked about privatizing public safety in courts or jails, their stance on California's Three Strikes Law, the death penalty, the state releasing non-violent offender early and how labor organizations should participate in politics.
Planning Commissioner and council candidate Jim Righeimer received the questionnaire but didn't respond to it or interview with the association. He took aim at pensions early in his campaign, blaming them among other things for the state's and city's budget woes. Since then, the police association has attacked Righeimer's own financial past and character.
"I don't think it's proper for a candidate to sit down in an interview with somebody who has a contract with the city and based on that meeting with them they determine spending [money] against me," Righeimer said. "Supposedly there's no conflict there, but a month later I could be voting on their … contract? It seems like an inherent conflict."
One retirement-related question for the council hopefuls addressed the current retirement formula versus a 401K. They were asked how they viewed the current formula, where officers are eligible for a pension at 50 years old and accumulate 3% for every year of service. Pensions max out at 90%, or at 30 years of service.
The second question pointed to what some officers consider a misstep by Costa Mesa's leaders. Should cities continue to budget their contributions to the state's pension fund in boom years, when the fund is performing well enough that cities don't have to pay into it, in case of bust years when the fund will fall short?
For years, Costa Mesa didn't budget for paying into the fund because it was performing great and they didn't have to contribute. Instead of setting that money aside for a rainy day, Costa Mesa spent it on other projects, leading to the three-plus years of budget shortfalls residents have endured, Rieckhof said.
Outside of the questionnaire, even the face-to-face interviews focused on a range of issues, candidates said.
"They want your opinion on all topics that relate to law enforcement, not only the city but statewide," said City Council candidate Susan Lester. "They asked me a lot of questions about me and why I thought I was qualified…they asked about pensions, things like that. But it wasn't the focus of the conversation."
Fellow candidate Chris McEvoy agreed.
"I think they want someone who will be fair and will be reasonable," he said. "Everything was talked about."