Attendees voice outrage at City Council

COSTA MESA — When the council chamber doors were opened, voices from the outside burst in.

From the outside, applause and hoots from inside the chamber echoed out.

At City Hall, no matter where you were for Tuesday night's City Council meeting, attendees were making their voices heard about Costa Mesa's plan to outsource nearly half of its city workforce.

"I'm here to say that your publicity stunt isn't going to work," said Joel Flores, a longtime city resident, to the council. "It isn't going to work because the citizens of Costa Mesa are on to you and your schemes!"

Over applause, Flores continued, "We know that the majority of the citizens of Costa Mesa do not support the outsourcing plan. These attacks on city workers are political, self-serving examples of shameless opportunism."

Tuesday night operated more like a rally than a council meeting, with citywide tensions not felt since the public debate over illegal immigration enforcement in 2006.

Members of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. distributed fliers outside the chambers that listed the 100 city employees with the highest total compensation. The fliers were apparently in support of the City Council, which aims to reinvest in capital improvements.

A few steps away, Repair Costa Mesa, a community group that opposes the council's direction, had a sign-up table with its own literature.

Attendees who navigated past those still had to avoid the numerous TV cameras and broadcast reporters conducting interviews near the entryway, and the several uniformed police officers inside. Plain-clothes officers were also among the audience members.

It was home-court advantage for layoff opponents, who received unmitigated applause for their comments. The few who supported the council's layoff efforts, like 20-year resident Richard Riva, received sarcastic laughter, boos or whispered criticisms. Only a handful of applause could be heard for him.

"Ultimately, somebody's got to make some very tough decisions," Riva told the council. "I respect that you're trying to make those. If you can communicate, be transparent, balance a budget and get us out of some hot water, maybe I can live for another 20 years."

It's been a long three weeks for city employees and residents. It started on St. Patrick's Day, when more than 200 city employees were issued layoff notices. That same afternoon one city employee, Huy Pham, jumped to his death from the top of City Hall.

At the same time, Mayor Gary Monahan was tending his bar up the street, Skosh Monahan's, instead of going to City Hall and consoling workers. He later said had he gone to City Hall that day, his presence would have only inflamed the already emotional crowd. He reiterated his regrets Tuesday night.

"We've had a very tragic couple of weeks for Costa Mesa," Monahan said. "My actions have added to that, and I just want to apologize for that, my shortcomings I've had as mayor. I promise to do better."

In the weeks following the layoffs, the city has used a $200,000 allocation to hire a temporary communications manager, interim finance director and professional help to assist in the layoffs.

As rationalization for the layoffs, council members point to city estimates that pension costs could increase by more than $10 million in the next five years. Opponents say the numbers are misleading and the council is using them for political posturing.

Councilman Jim Righeimer told the audience the council was left with little choice but to issue the six-month notices to workers.

"Why did we make this decision? We have a budget that's due in less than 90 days," Righeimer said.

He said that city employee contracts require a six-month advance notice for outsourcing efforts, and if they had a shorter window, the council wouldn't have approved them.

"It makes a tough decision of what we have to do. If we want the flexibility, we had to right the ship to right the city," he said.

Many city employees have said privately they're looking for jobs elsewhere, and many police officers have applied for other cities like Irvine and Beverly Hills.

"Using our great city as a trial to push a political agenda — it was cruel and inhumane to give layoff notices without a proper study," said Susan Meyer, a Costa Mesa resident.

She then paused for applause and looked directly at the mayor.

"Gary, because you have so much experience, I ask you to fire yourself," she said. The crowd roared. "You are not fit to be our mayor. You are an embarrassment. Do the right thing. Step down now."

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