COSTA MESA — As City Councilman Steve Mensinger strolled across the football field at Estancia High School’s Jim Scott Stadium on the morning of April 23, English teacher Joel Flores said he saw an opportunity.
Flores, 38, isn’t a member of any city employee groups affected by the council’s broad outsourcing plan aimed at lowering city costs, but the teacher at Estancia High is as against it as any city worker.
“If you’re opposed to it, you should say something to your public official,” Flores said. “I thought, ‘There is no way he’s not going to hear from me personally.’”
And hear from Flores he did.
The two got into a confrontation, where Flores later accused Mensinger of “chest-bumping” him. Mensinger has said that they exchanged words, but has denied that he got physical with Flores.
Their publicized encounter overshadowed what was otherwise a friendly event. Instead of celebrating a fun run for children on a Saturday morning, the few moments of heated words had residents choosing sides in debates and online message boards in the following days.
The tenor of some comments ran into: Are you with Mensinger, a respected councilman who was inappropriately berated by a “union thug” at a nonpolitical event? Or are you with Flores, a dedicated teacher who bravely voiced his opinion against a councilman destroying the city from the inside out?
However, the politically passionate men, like their arguments, are more nuanced.
For his part, Flores grew up in Walnut Creek, a conservative, relatively affluent community in the Bay Area east of Berkeley. He and his three older brothers were raised by a minister father and a stay-at-home mother. He attended Walnut Creek Christian Academy and went to high school in San Diego when the family moved south.
“I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong,” Flores said. “I think that comes from being raised a preacher’s kid.”
A youth group trip with his father to an orphanage in Mexico changed Flores’ life. He was no older than 10 at the time and it was the first such trip for his family.
Before that trip, he said, he’d never seen how many advantages he and his peers had in Walnut Creek. He went to a school that always had enough supplies, enough books. Kids always did their homework and people didn’t drop out.
But the world seemed bigger to him after his eye-opening experience. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots was in front of him. The family made the trip to Mexico an annual tradition, and he watched the orphans grow up.
“The poverty,” Flores said, his voice trailing. “The things I saw blew me away. It made a big impression on a lot of us.”
A start into activism
Flores earned his bachelor’s and master’s in education at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, then known as Southern California College. While teaching as an adjunct professor there from 2000-05, he also taught first grade at Adams Elementary School and earned a second master’s from Pepperdine University.
The longtime Costa Mesa resident, who is also a husband and father of an 11-year-old and 15-year-old, doesn’t have a criminal record except a few traffic tickets.
While at Adams, Flores became the school’s representative for the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, the local teacher’s union.
He considers unions part of society’s system of checks and balances, and a way to fight unfair wages and discrimination in the workplace. Flores is a registered Democrat, and in the past has been a libertarian and a member of the Green Party, according to state records. He said he has socialist leanings, and wants to see the energy and health-care industries nationalized.
Flores channeled his zeal into working with students at Estancia, acting as an advisor for the students’ human rights club, said Kimberly Claytor, the teachers’ union president. The two have attended anti-war rallies together and advocated for workers’ rights in spite of the workers’ immigration status, she said.
Estancia Principal Kirk Bauermeister said Flores is an effective teacher who leaves his political beliefs outside the classroom.
“He does a good job with the curriculum and state standards,” Bauermeister said.
Feeling compelled to act
When the City Council voted to issue layoff notices to more than 200 of the city’s workforce earlier this year, with about half of those city jobs potentially being privatized, Flores for the first time felt compelled to publicly take a stand.
City leaders say the cuts are needed to lower costs and reinvest money into poorly funded city maintenance projects.
On April 5, Flores let his views known at that night’s council meeting.
In a speech that roused many in the audience, Flores called the council’s plan “shameless opportunism” and politically motivated.
When the crowd erupted into applause, that caught the eye of members of the Orange County Employees’ Assn. (OCEA), who were beginning to fund an anti-outsourcing publicity campaign called Repair Costa Mesa. Although he’s not an association member, Flores agreed to appear in one of the group’s commercials.
“I just wanted to do something for this city to avoid these terrible layoffs,” he said.
“I saw [outsourcing] as such a huge theft of the public domain,” Flores added. “These are our public services. We as residents of Costa Mesa are being robbed.”
So, 18 days after Flores stood up in the Council Chambers to express his views about the proposed layoffs, the teacher seized the moment at the community run. He said he has no regrets about trying to confront one of the council members directly in person.
Flores, a smaller person than Mensinger, claims Mensinger used his height and weight to push him around. Then Flores said he went back to his car and called Claytor to discuss the confrontation.
“The only reason Joel would create any kind of incident is he stands for his convictions,” she said. “He doesn’t waver from what he believes. … I wish more people had the confidence to speak their mind on what they’re passionate about.”
After talking with Claytor, Flores filed a police report. Mensinger has since filed a complaint about Flores with the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
“There has to be a record of it,” Flores said. “I wanted [Mensinger] to know and I wanted everyone to know you can’t be treated that way for speaking your mind.”
Flores, who says he has since received calls at the school criticizing him for the incident, claims he wasn’t trying to set Mensinger up and that OCEA wasn’t behind it. The teacher also had no regrets about how he handled himself that morning.
But there is one thing about the incident that Flores does lament.
“I wish I had a witness,” he said.