Agenda debate suggests a highly divided City Council

COSTA MESA — Earlier this month Councilman Eric Bever suggested the city stop lone council members from putting items on the agenda.

Doing so, however, would have further isolated Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the only person on the council opposed to proposals to lay off city workers and replace them with contractors.

In a thinly veiled criticism of one of Leece's proposals at the Aug. 2 meeting, Bever said then that too often "junk" ends up on the agenda that is purely symbolic and is certain to die without support.

Leece failed at the meeting to garner any support from her colleagues or the public to reduce council pay or benefits. She argued that her proposed reductions, though minor, were important for city employees facing potential job losses.

"Yeah, it's symbolic and a lot of things, but it doesn't go anywhere because there's no support on the council," Bever said afterward.

He also took issue with the fact that Leece voted to table the motion after she was the one who brought it up.

"Generally, I always make a habit of knowing I have at least one person on board with me before going forward with something," Bever said earlier this month. "What it would do in this case, it would force [Leece] to start working with the council members, which she doesn't anymore. She could reach out to us and say, 'Hey, I got this idea and what do you think?'"

The two-term councilman's suggestion highlighted an ideological divide that's only widened since March, when the majority voted to issue layoff notices to nearly half the city's workforce.

But Leece believes that all elected officials, whether on the minority side of an issue or not, have the right to put an item on the agenda for debate.

Leece said she feels it's unfair in a democracy to require agreement with the minority view just to have an item put on the agenda.

"It's important to have the discussion," she said. "Sometimes we do just write a report to discuss something in public. Perhaps I could've gotten other people to agree with this. I didn't think it was necessary."

Bever made his suggestion informally and it is not clear yet whether it will reemerge as a formal proposal. Nevertheless, it illustrates the widening valley between the council majority and Leece, who is often the lone dissenting voice.

Past councils have also shown similar divisions, but this council's arguments have taken a more personal tone, observers say.

Today's council members regularly accuse each other of pandering to outside groups.

Leece, a Republican, argues the Republican Party is setting the council majority's agenda, while the majority accuses her of kowtowing to public employee groups that campaigned for her last year.

Before the 2010 election, then-council members Katrina Foley and Allan Mansoor could be counted on to oppose each other on many issues in a manner similar to the current group, with Bever reliably in Mansoor's corner.

In addition, Gary Monahan, now mayor, and Leece were the swing votes typically near the center.

"We didn't agree on the issues, Assemblyman Mansoor and I. We definitely didn't agree on the issues, but on the dais we would [just] debate the issues," Foley said.

However, with Mansoor now in the state Assembly and Foley on the Newport-Mesa school board, Leece has become increasingly isolated in her stances compared to her colleagues, due almost all in part to her support of the city employee associations that oppose the layoffs. She also angered the Republican Party of Orange County for voting in favor of employee contracts that GOP leaders found too costly.

The council finds solidarity on smaller issues, but the divide shows up with larger matters like city staffing and spending priorities — items that determine the city's path.

"I think the issues that have come before the City Council in the last year have been very different issues, and my main point is that we're going too fast," Leece said.

Bever's suggestion was based in how the Newport-Mesa Unified School District creates its agendas, where the school board president approves what makes it on the agenda. Trustees can request an item be placed on the agenda during a meeting, but then it requires majority approval.

Like Leece on the council, Foley has found herself isolated at times on the school board.

"I think that denies representative government," Foley said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer is aware of the school board's policy, but said that doesn't mean it would work with the council.

They can all still be civil, despite their disagreements, he said.

"I think having a mayor or head approve it is a little much," Righeimer said. "I wouldn't change the council policy just because of one council person … I've known the lady for 20 years. I'm not going to stop communicating with her just because we disagree."

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