COSTA MESA — Mayor Gary Monahan has come under fire from employee associations for not showing up at City Hall last week after a maintenance worker expecting a layoff notice jumped from the roof and died.
Monahan instead chose to continue working at his Irish pub, Skosh Monahan's, on what is normally the busiest day of the year, St. Patrick's Day.
"In retrospect, there's things I wish I would've done differently," Monahan said Monday. "I would've found a way to at least get down to City Hall for a little bit."
But the mayor also was bothered by the circulation of what he deemed an out-of-context picture of him dressed in festive Irish attire — a kilt, plaid cap and oversized leprechaun bow tie. He asserts that detractors e-mailed the picture around to make him appear insensitive to the situation.
"Obviously the controversy comes from the fact that you've got the one guy snapping pictures for St. Patty's Day, and [dressing up is] what we do on that day," Monahan said. "It doesn't fit with the seriousness of the matter, and I understand that."
Three other members of the five-member City Council — Wendy Leece, Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger — showed up at 77 Fair Drive after Huy Pham, 29, committed suicide. The fifth councilman, Eric Bever, was reportedly home sick.
Monahan's detractors say that even though being mayor of Costa Mesa is a part-time job, as the boss of the city he should have been there to console employees after learning of Pham's death.
"That's the time leadership is needed," said Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents some of the Costa Mesa workers. "That's why what Monahan was doing that day was significant. He should've been there for the employees of the city and the community."
Nick Berardino, general manager for OCEA, headed to Skosh Monahan's Thursday to confront the mayor. Armed with a camera, he photographed Monahan outside the bar in his Irish garb.
As media crews later descended on City Hall, Berardino waved the images on his cell phone for the cameras.
"And obviously his priority was his saloon, not the city of Costa Mesa," Berardino said Monday.
Monahan and the three other councilmen have become targets of union leaders since they voted to lay off Pham and about 200 other city workers — nearly half the workforce. The council majority has argued that the layoffs are necessary to keep the city financially solvent as it faces high pension and compensation costs.
Monahan has defended his choice. On Friday, the mayor released a statement saying he "realized my presence could further inflame and escalate the situation, and decided not to visit City Hall."
When Righeimer and Mensinger arrived at the Civic Center on Thursday, at least one city employee threatened them physically.
"I don't think Gary could have come back without there being more of problem," Mensinger said Monday. "There were a lot of emotions that day."
Leece, who voted against the layoffs, received a warm welcome from employees.
Though the title of mayor rotates among council members in smaller municipalities like Costa Mesa, Monahan is the public face of the city, especially during a crisis, said Fred Smoller, director of the public administration master's program at Chapman's Brandman University.
"The mayor is a symbolic leader of the community and he should represent its noblest values," Smoller said, "and being in a bar may not represent those values."
"It seemed out of step with the severity of the situation," he added.
Certainly the most severe crisis that the city has seen since Monahan was reelected in November, Pham's suicide and the outsourcing debate may be the biggest to rock the city since he first took office in 1994.
On and off the council since then, Monahan has served three terms as mayor. He was elected in November and appointed mayor shortly after. Meanwhile, he serves on the boards of directors for a handful of local agencies and associations, and operates his restaurant on Newport Boulevard.