Judge rules no layoffs for Costa Mesa — for now

SANTA ANA — Costa Mesa cannot lay off city employees by outsourcing their jobs to private companies until the city goes through proper legal steps, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that layoffs could not be reinstated until a civil trial when they can be reinstated if an agreement is reached in earlier court proceedings.

In a preliminary injunction barring the city from implementing its outsourcing plans, Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann demanded that Costa Mesa follow necessary steps if it plans to replace 213 employees with mostly private workers. The city issued the layoff notices in March.

City officials, meanwhile, said they believed the city was in compliance with the law and should be able to execute their austerity measures.

"We are following the proper procedures," City Attorney Tom Duarte said in a press release. "This ruling doesn't affect the city's ability to research outsourcing possibilities and, if it's prudent, to outsource city jobs down the road."

A majority of the workers affected are part of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn., which is represented by the larger Orange County Employees Assn., that petitioned the court in May.

The jobs on the chopping block — from dogcatcher to bookkeeper to jail services — are not "special services" that Costa Mesa has legal authority to contract out to private companies, OCEA attorneys argued.

The group also argued that the city did not meet with employee groups before issuing the notices, as required in city contracts. Schumann made a note of that as well.

On Tuesday, Harold Potter of Jones & Mayer, the law firm representing Costa Mesa, seemed at a loss in court with Schumann's ruling and offered little reaction outside the courtroom.

He waved his arms in wide circles from behind the defendant's bench, telling Schumann that she was barring Costa Mesa from finding solutions to balance perceived budget problems.

"The restraining order restrains the city from thinking of outsourcing jobs," Potter said. "There is no harm or immediate harm that couldn't be undone. It's a let's-wait-and-see type of proposal."

"I don't think the plaintiff is here because the city is exploring other fiscally sound policies in a tough economy," Schumann dryly replied.

"You're enjoining the city from doing what?" Potter asked.

"Laying off the employees without following proper procedures," she answered.

Neither the judge nor the attorneys in court Tuesday clarified what those procedures were. Costa Mesa will have to follow them if it wants to offload city workers and some of its pension obligations.

The hold is in place until the matter is resolved in court, OCEA attorneys said. Essentially, attorneys said, layoffs might not happen on Sept. 30, when the notices would begin to take effect.

Costa Mesa can continue to send out requests for proposals to seek bids for city work, but that is it. In a news release issued after the ruling, city officials said that if Costa Mesa finds a suitable outside company and meets with the OCEA and follow the law, it can still lay off workers.

"It removes this cloud over the employees and the community," said OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir. "It's just one step in the process."

"Nothing is going to change as far as our work," said Helen Nenadal, president of the CMCEA. "The employees can somewhat start living a normal life."

The first people Nenadal said she was going to tell were her family.

"Instead of looking for work in another 10 weeks, I'm still employed," Nenadal said.

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