Costa Mesa is in the public policy fight of the decade. And that's saying something for a town that has seen bitter battles in recent years over illegal immigration, day laborers, medical marijuana dispensaries and, of course, the fairgrounds.
For those who need to get caught up, the city announced plans to lay off nearly half of its workers, one of whom jumped off of City Hall and died. A public employee union this week targeted the mayor in a campaign-style attack ad, blasting him for working in his Irish bar instead of comforting distraught city employees.
Rare Costa Mesa datelines appeared on stories in The New York Times and Washington Post, national newspapers that used the City of the Arts to illustrate, at the local level, a nationwide debate. Comment boards have been smoking with vitriol.
At the heart of all this is a deep difference in opinion over the city's finances. The conservative council majority says generous pension obligations and salary costs are "unsustainable." The employee associations assert that four council members are crying wolf so they can win reforms based more on political ideology than on fiscal necessity.
So who's got the story straight?
Hoping to find out, Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia and I recently reassembled our Feet to the Fire Forum team from the fall campaign season with Newport Beach Independent Editor Roger Bloom, Voice of OC Editor Norberto Santana Jr. and Register columnist Frank Mickadeit.
We engaged in long discussions around Barbara's dinner table about Costa Mesa's proposal to run City Hall "more like a business." We were set to go with a March forum on that subject when, on St. Patrick's Day, city employee Huy Pham, 29, took his own life. We delayed the forum so the community could recover from a terrible shock.
But in spite of that tragedy, the conversation about Costa Mesa's future still needs to take place. So much remains at stake — some 200 jobs and 109,960 residents who will still need services.
So the panelists invited a group that should be able to explain why Costa Mesa needs to outsource — or why it doesn't. And this is a group that represents the polarity at either end of the tug-of-war — labor and conservatives — as a well as a conservative councilwoman who is emerging as something of a populist foil.
The guests are Councilman Jim Righeimer, who has championed privatization; Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the only official who voted against the plan; Orange County Employees Assn. General Manager Nick Berardino, an advocate for workers; and Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. President Colin McCarthy, whose conservative grass-roots group backs the council majority.
By my count, that's two folks for outsourcing and two against. This should lead to some spirited — and I hope civil — exchanges. But I hope the talks leads us to is what everyone in town wants: the truth.
Perhaps you have questions you want the panelists to address. Post them here and I'll pick a couple to ask at the Feet to the Fire Forum, which will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. April 18 at the Costa Mesa Community Center, 1845 Park Ave.
JOHN CANALIS is editor of the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot, the Huntington Beach Independent and OCNow. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
Who: Council members Jim Righeimer and Wendy Leece, Orange County Employees Assn. General Manager Nick Berardino and Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. President Colin McCarthy.
What: Feet to the Fire Forum: Should C.M. be run like a business?
When: 7 to 9 p.m. April 18
Where: 1845 Park Ave.