The battle for Costa Mesa's government burst onto the stage Wednesday night as challengers and defenders of the City Council sparred at the Feet to the Fire forum.
Three City Council candidates portrayed the current majority's outsourcing plans as reckless, while two sitting councilmen and their ally said they seek to reform government and save taxpayers money.
The forum at the Neighborhood Community Center drew about 250 people, the most vocal of whom cheered on the council critics.
Columnists and editors from local media outlets pressed the candidates on outsourcing, with Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia taking a hard line about the current City Council's actions.
"I think everybody has had enough time to see the damage and the fallout," she said, asking Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan if they regretted how they handled the outsourcing process.
The Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. had sued the city after the council voted last year to issue about 200 pink slips. Since then, the city has spent almost $1 million defending against the suit.
"We had knee-jerk reaction from the associations and we had a lawsuit," Monahan said, pointing out that the city expects more than $2 million in annual savings from park landscaping and maintenance, street sweeping and jailing — three city services the council has already voted to outsource.
Candidate John Stephens, a business attorney and council critic, said he would consider canceling some of the decisions already made to outsource services, if his slate won the majority.
"I think the process was infected from the very beginning," he said.
Stephens is aligned with former Mayor Sandy Genis and businessman Harold Weitzberg. The candidate trio has the support of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, a grass-roots citizens group. They have coordinated their attacks on the current council.
On the other side, Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy came to the support of Mensinger and Monahan. He argued that the city has the "sovereign right" to outsource and could have done it much easier if the city had a charter.
The seventh candidate, retired certified public accountant Al Melone, did not attend Wednesday's forum. Melone has said his main goal is to get a referendum on the city's fireworks ordinance.
Voters in November will also choose whether the city converts to a charter form of government — essentially a city constitution — in addition to choosing who will take the three open seats of the five-member council.
Stephens, who claims to have read all of the other city charters in Orange County, pointed out two parts of Costa Mesa's charter that he said were problematic: one that doesn't require an independent audit and another that omits a limit for no-bid contracts.
The current City Council drafted the proposed charter.
"That was a deliberate decision to exempt us from the public contracting code," Stephens said.
Mensinger said that the city would continue to use its current procedures, which he maintains require bidding for public works contracts.
Stephens and Weitzberg impressed 18-year-old Tony Salcedo, a Cal State Fullerton economics student.
"Both of them appeared very knowledgeable," Salcedo said.
Much of the debate also covered civility, as the city has gained national attention for its acrimonious labor relations.
"It tarnishes the brand of our city," Stephens said to loud applause.
When pressed for a solution to the lack of civility, Mensinger said he tries to listen to his ideological opponents.
"You try to meet with them outside of the political forum," he said.
The six candidates used the second forum to also outline their positions on the Banning Ranch development, medical marijuana dispensaries and the lack of political participation by the city's Latino residents.
The next Feet to the Fire forum is Oct. 15. It will focus on the charter.