City Council meeting fray takes personal tone

COSTA MESA — Even by recent standards, the City Council meeting on Tuesday took an unusually personal tone as critics attacked the council majority, with council members responding in kind.

Like steam looking for a vent, residents opposed to Costa Mesa's outsourcing plans used a proposal to give Costa Mesa Pop Warner up to $10,000 in city funds as an opportunity to again challenge the majority's logic in potentially laying off workers.

"What I've been told since February is we don't have any money," said Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. President Helen Nenadal. "When the city has money, [then] look to do that."

The question before the council's members was relatively simple: Should they or shouldn't they give the youth football program up to $10,000 to help cover the cost of using Jim Scott Stadium at Estancia High School last year?

Pop Warner officials said Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials had told them years ago that their organization could use the field at no charge once the district reached a joint-use agreement with the city. Youth groups receive a waiver from field-use fees if more than 75% of the children are local, as they are in Pop Warner. However, with the stadium not yet part of a city-district agreement, Pop Warner has to pony up.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece immediately challenged the request, saying it was disingenuous of the group to ask for a "gift of public funds" and presumptuous of Pop Warner to think this would work out in the end.

Residents argued that Councilman Steve Mensinger should recuse himself from the discussion because he is Pop Warner's former president. Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer should also recuse himself, resident Perry Valentine suggested, because his daughter is involved in the league's cheerleading program.

Other residents said the entire argument was ridiculous, and that the money should be approved so the council could move on.

Righeimer, in an unusual show of emotion, bristled at the criticism. In an animated speech from the dais, he argued that community involvement is the very reason that people like him were elected to the council. He then addressed organized labor.

"Ms. Nenadal, we have enough money to run the city; we just don't have enough money to pay your employees," he said, pointing at her in the audience. "You are suing the city every time we are turning around, and then you complain about attorneys fees … the only place this council gets beat up is in this room."

Mensinger traded barbs with several people Tuesday. He rebuked public insinuations that he had been appointed to the council as a favor for campaign contributions to Righeimer, then went on the offensive against Leece.

He mocked her business acumen, then said she is consistently unprepared for council meetings. Righeimer later suggested that she received a large amount of money the day after approving employee union contracts — a claim she vehemently denied.

Mayor Gary Monahan, who usually plays referee at council debates, jumped into the fray as well. He argued that it was impractical — actually "crazy" — to suggest council members should recuse themselves from votes on any issue where they had the most tenuous of ties.

Councilman Eric Bever took issue with the debate.

"This shouldn't have been an hour-and-a-half issue," he said. "The aspersions cast here tonight, people, you should be ashamed of yourself."

In the end, with Leece dissenting, the council voted in favor of giving Pop Warner the money.

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