NEWPORT BEACH — Sitting across from each other with only a carousel of condiments and a bowl of crackers between them, Costa Mesa Councilmen Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger faced off against organized labor officials at an unlikely place: Coco's in Fashion Island.
Also at the table were Orange County Employees Assn. General Manager Nick Berardino and OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir, who spoke on behalf of about 200 Costa Mesa workers facing possible layoffs.
The League of Women Voters of Orange Coast hosted the event aimed at examining both sides of the debate regarding Costa Mesa's closely watched austerity program. The event drew about 35 people to the diner.
It was clear from the outset the council members were facing an unabashedly skeptical crowd, with some guests offering sarcastic retorts during their presentations.
"Before I was on council, it was so obvious to me what the problem was," Righeimer said of city employee pensions. "As we looked at what we had to do [on the council], we knew we had to go with outsourcing."
Righeimer's claim, that employee pensions are a fiscal deadweight for Costa Mesa that can only be lifted by outsourcing and other drastic cuts, has been the source of the most heated debates Costa Mesa has seen since immigration enforcement in 2006.
Raising the audience's ire, Righeimer and Mensinger supplied few numbers to back up their claims that outsourcing saves money. To this point, Costa Mesa hasn't received many bids on how much outside companies would cost to run some city services, so there's no way yet to calculate potential savings.
The two officials stuck to what they knew for certain: The city's pension costs are estimated to climb about $10 million to $25 million in the next few years, and for the last three years, Costa Mesa has drained $33 million from its cash reserves to balance budgets — money they would have rather seen spent on road repairs, parks and city maintenance and other issues.
"Where do we get money for new parks? Where do we get money to upkeep the parks?" Righeimer asked.
Muir and Berardino maintained that the council majority's plan is politically motivated and that the numbers floated so far don't point to a need for layoffs.
If anything, the city should go back to the bargaining table with the employee groups, Berardino said.
He did not defend the current benefits employees had, instead saying there was room for change.
But the fundamental idea behind municipal workers' pensions in his mind — fair compensation for good work — shouldn't be thrown out for the lowest bidder, Berardino said.
"We got to get away from this race to the bottom," he said. "The question isn't, Why we should have it. The question is why shouldn't we all have it in the richest country in the world?"
Berardino then offered to negotiate with the city, but on one condition: the council has to rescind the layoff notices it distributed in March to 213 workers.
Righeimer and Mensinger said that's not going to happen, as long as the employee contracts require that if the city wants to outsource jobs it has to issue notices six months in advance to do it.
"The issue today is control, it's control in a nutshell," Mensinger said.
Then he pointed to Berardino, "They should not control our city. We should control our own city."
The debate did little to change people's minds. Most said they sided with city workers and thought there were other solutions.
One woman, Judy Gielow, a 42-year Costa Mesa resident, said she now believes the council is acting in the city's best interests, but both it and the OCEA are still playing politics.