Lobdell: Poor execution of an idea worth considering

March Madness has already hit Costa Mesa.

In a dizzying, four-day span beginning Feb. 25, the council placed a last-minute item on its agenda that proposed sending pink slips to nearly half of the city's employees.

The only information given to the public about the item was a bare-bones city staff report that lacked any meaningful details, including the number of employees targeted for potential layoffs and the estimated cost savings.

And then the new council super-majority voted 4 to 1 to send out about 200 layoff notices that warn employees that they could lose their job in six months.

Wham bam, thank you, ma'am.

The council did virtually the same frantic dance steps to ram through a proposal on another 4-1 vote to explore allowing private paramedics — billed as a complement to city paramedics — to serve Costa Mesa residents.

This agenda item had flown so low under the radar that no one at the Costa Mesa Fire Department was consulted about it, and the city's emergency medical services coordinator — the experienced and well-respected Larry Grihalva — told the council as nicely as possible that he wondered why no one hadn't tapped his vast knowledge on the issue. He practically begged the council to use his expertise.

The Costa Mesa City Council seems to be operating on the philosophy that former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi used when pushing through the nation's health-care reform bill: "You have to pass the bill so that you can find out what's in it …"

Or there could be another explanation: The council members had been injected with some of Charlie Sheen's tiger blood, leading to highly aggressive behavior.

Look, privatizing government services will always be a difficult journey to embark upon, especially locally where residents interact with and are fond of their public workers.

For instance, in 1993, Newport Beach debated whether to lay off seven employees and hire a private company to trim the city's 20,000 trees, hoping to save $123,000. Many residents protested the then-radical step.

One city tree trimmer summed up the feeling at the time: "You have to have somebody who knows what they are doing if you need to cut a tree over a $1-million house in Corona del Mar. You won't find a better quality of work anywhere."

But guess what?

Since then, Newport's trees — and its residents — haven't noticed much of a difference, and the city saved some money. I imagine that would be the case for at least some of the services that the Costa Mesa council is exploring to privatize.

Besides — and here I'm agreeing with the super-majority and, I'm guessing, dissenting Councilwoman Wendy Leece — the city probably has no other option for balancing its budget in the long term than privatizing a sizeable chunk of city jobs — and ridding itself of skyrocketing pension liabilities it won't be able to meet in the not-too-distant future.

The quality of the services may or may not suffer, but Costa Mesa residents simply might not have a choice.

Quick side note: For those lobbying to save the city jobs, you'd do well to come up with a budget plan taking into account the looming pension bubble that will put Costa Mesa in good financial health five and 10 years from now, not just in 2011-12.

There's a pension tsunami coming that's threatening to wipe out government at all levels, and Costa Mesa needs to head for the high ground. But the council needs to do so in an orderly fashion without trampling over its constituents. Council members can't decide, using two-person committees, what's right for the residents and then turn the committees' views into city policy in just four days.

In the past, it's taken longer in Costa Mesa to decide how to paint its police cars.

Last week, Leece gave the council an opportunity for a do-over. She asked that the council review the two controversial items from its last meeting: whether to send pink slips to employees and whether to explore allowing private paramedics in Costa Mesa.

She'll need two other votes to revive debate on the issues. Mayor Gary Monahan would be the most likely candidate, but Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Councilman Steve Mensinger would undo a ton of political damage if they simply voted to review the issues.

Leece's grounds seem solid enough: insufficient notice to the public, inadequate staff reports, complaints from residents that they didn't have enough notice or information, and some legal questions.

"Costa Mesans are not used to being treated like this, and they are upset," Leece wrote in an e-mail. "Their input is valuable too and should not be discounted."

So let's call a false start — the city is only a few steps into this marathon — and do it right this time. Have the staff produce detailed reports on each issue. Provide residents with well-publicized hearings to air out the issues. Ask employee unions to present an alternative plan that would have the city in good financial health 10 years from now.

It's true on both issues that the council has voted for nothing permanent. Approval of the layoff notices only started the six-month clock ticking as dictated by law. In theory, none of the layoffs has to happen.

And the council also voted merely to ask for an opinion on whether it makes sense to allow private paramedics to operate in the city.

But the perception around town is that the fix is in, that the council has gone rogue and railroading through an agenda that the residents never bought into — or even had a chance to debate.

For now, I'm in the minority. I think the council majority's intentions are good. It sees a budget emergency and has thrown all its energy into rescuing the city's finances on behalf of the residents. I like that the council hasn't, to use the most overworked phrase at its last meeting, "kicked the can down the road." It wants to deal squarely with budget problems that will cripple our country.

I wish our elected representatives in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., had as much political courage.

But the Costa Mesa council's execution has been all wrong. When considering a radical change to local government, residents and city employees need to feel they've been listened to, their input valued.

They need to see all options have been thoroughly explored.

And then, when the tough — and undoubtedly unpopular — decisions need to be made (a few months later than the council's current timetable), residents will at least feel they've been part of a democratic process and not a banana republic.

That will stop the madness.

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. His column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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