A life lost, a city changed

It started March 1, 2011.

The Costa Mesa City Council voted 4 to 1 to send out hundreds of notices to city workers telling them that in six months they would be replaced.

For the council majority, the ball got rolling. They had taken their first step toward a vision of a leaner, meaner city government that was cheaper to run and faster to act. For council critics, they could point to a concrete council decision and argue that the majority acted without thinking through the details.

About two weeks later, onSt. Patrick's Day, it all took an even more serious, grave turn.

City maintenance worker Huy Pham, 29, jumped to his death from the fifth story of City Hall. The repercussions of that incident are still echoing.

Councilman Gary Monahan, a target of the council's critics, stepped down as mayor this week after his toughest year ever; a community group formed last March continues to grow.

City employees, meanwhile, have formed stronger bonds.

"We, as employees in this past year, there's been a lot of trust issues, so we've had to rely on each other to get us through the day to day," said Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. "We just look out for each other a little more.

"Living in uncertainty, having five layoff notices and doing everything we can possibly do — there's good days and bad days, and employees are conscious of that."

Pham, like many of his colleagues, was supposed to receive his layoff notice March 17, 2011, but was out on injury leave at the time. It's still unclear why, but the hardworking jack-of-all-trades drove to City Hall, climbed a stairwell onto the fifth-story roof, meandered for a bit and then leapt off the east side of the building.

"It will have an effect on the employees for the rest of their lives," Nenadal said. "We lost a family member that day, and that's never going to go away."

No one is certain why Pham took his life, but it became apparent that there were other issues. He had been healing from the injury and taking medication. Traces of cocaine were found in his system.

"I think most people think it's unfortunate, and that most people understand that though it's unfortunate, their job is a minor part of their life," Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said. "A lot of people in the community were upset with how it was portrayed, that the City Council was held responsible somehow. I think a lot of people took offense to it."

When news of Pham's death spread, reaction was quick and furious. Police and firefighters rushed to the scene and covered Pham's body; others set up a makeshift wall, made out of election booth cardboard, around the scene.

Officers taped off the area and employees from the nearby dispatch center — the men and women who received the emergency 9-1-1 call of Pham's jump — grieved. Pham's fellow maintenance workers came up and consoled each other, and one by one, City Council members came to offer their support.

One worker had to be held back as he lashed out at city CEO Tom Hatch, the man directed by the council to issue the layoff notices.

Then-Mayor Monahan never went to City Hall that afternoon. On that eventfulSt. Patrick's Day, he remained at his Newport Boulevard sports bar, knowing it was his business' busiest day and fearing that his presence at the scene would only inflame the situation.

He later apologized for not showing up, but many in the community never forgave him, continuously bringing up his decision at council meetings and in online forums.

"It's a very, very sad story when someone takes their life," Righeimer said. "It happens to people, and it's not a good thing. We have young people in high school who have all their issues, and it's very tough when people do that because you want to feel for them and their family."

Residents gathered at a vigil for Pham later that night, and slowly the seeds of an organized community group were sown.

"It brought everyone together at one place, at one time," said Perry Valantine, treasurer of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, the latest name for the citizen group created out of last year's events. "Something like that obviously got everyone's attention."

Within weeks, the City Council's neighborhood critics were meeting around kitchen tables and in living rooms, discussing what could be done to stop the layoffs, to stop the hiring of outside consultants, to stop whatever idea Righeimer and his colleagues would try to push through from the dais.

These days, people no longer accuse Righeimer and the council majority of being in some way responsible for Pham's suicide, but Pham's memory sits in the back of many minds when talk about putting policy into action arises.

"No one likes to see someone's life end in such a tragic way," said Newport-Mesa Unified school board Trustee Katrina Foley, a former city councilwoman. "It's an important reminder, though, that as policyholders, people are not just numbers on a page."

A year later, the fissure between the council majority, and city workers and residents has only widened.

The city is embroiled in a lawsuit with Nenadal and the CMCEA, which is trying to stop the layoffs. Just last month, the city sent out its latest layoff notice, this time telling staff that the earliest they will be replaced is June 30, about 15 months from the first round.

In a prepared statement last week that was distributed to employees, City Attorney Tom Duarte said the city "looks forward to its day in court" to fight the lawsuit.

"To see that email coming that says, 'We look forward to our day in court,' it's like, really?" Nenadal said. "In my opinion, they could've sent out what happened in court, but with the sensitivity of how it's going to be received by the employees. I mean, honestly, that's where it's just disheartening.

"The atmosphere, honestly, is now worse than it was last year."


Twitter: @JosephSerna

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