Fifth in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa’s political battles.
Gary Monahan can’t escape politics — not even during his morning commute.
As the Costa Mesa councilman walks from his Eastside home to the restaurant he owns off nearby Newport Boulevard, folks have been known to flag him down and talk the issues.
“I can’t hide,” he says with a laugh. “I can lock myself up at home, but I can’t hide.”
Monahan, 53, is certainly no stranger to many residents. He’s one of the longest-serving council members in recent memory: five terms, numbering 16 years from the dais and counting.
This past November, he barely clinched that fifth term. Only 155 votes kept him in the public sphere.
These days, though, Monahan keeps a relatively low profile during the council meetings. Compared to his four council colleagues, he’s minimal with his words and lets his voting talk for him.
“I’ve heard myself talk for 16 years. I don’t need to hear myself talk,” he says. “A lot of times, you do your talking when you pull that button, you know?”
He says the voters know by this point where he falls on most matters.
“They pretty much know what I’ve done, what I will do. I don’t necessarily have to spend 10 minutes explaining everything. I just don’t anymore.”
Battle for the Goat Hill
Monahan was born in Utica, N.Y., and raised in the Bay Area suburb of Mountain View.
His father was a research analyst for the Stanford Research Institute. His mother did a variety of jobs, not the least of which was raising three boys.
Monahan attended Cal State Fullerton, but left the university four units shy of completing his history degree. An uncooperative professor didn’t help things, he says, and his first child had just been born.
He was also working full time at Henry N’ Harry’s Goat Hill Tavern, the Newport Boulevard bar that, as it would turn out, inspired him to enter the political world.
In the early 1990s, the City Council voted not to renew the permit for Robert “Zeb” Ziemer’s legendary bar, calling it a haven for rowdiness and full of patrons who littered their beer bottles and urinated in the adjacent neighborhood. After a state appeals court sided with the Goat Hill, the city petitioned its case to the state Supreme Court.
At the time, Monahan was critical of the city’s desire to do so.
“As a resident and taxpayer of Costa Mesa, I find this ridiculous and overly costly in a time of budget shortfalls,” Monahan said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “But more importantly, we at the Goat Hill Tavern and myself as its general manager are fed up with the city’s latest and most unwarranted ploy to save face.”
By 1992, the Goat Hill had won. The state Supreme Court sided with the bar, voting 5 to 2 to deny the city’s request.
“It is a victory for all small businesses that they can run their business without having to look over their shoulders,” Monahan told the Los Angeles Times after the victory.
Monahan says some of the city’s requests of the bar, including closing at midnight, were ridiculous. “If you close at midnight, you might as well shut your doors and walk away,” he says.
Ziemer, who employed Monahan for nearly 10 years, says he doesn’t get to hang out with his former cohort much these days. They’re both busy running their respective establishments.
Monahan ran the Goat Hill’s community outreach for organizations like the Lions Club and did right by the bar during the prolonged court case, Ziemer says.
“The City Council had the wrong idea, and we had to correct them,” Ziemer says, adding that things seem to be better now. “We went to court in ’91, and a lot of water is under the bridge since then.”
Entry into politics
When Monahan put his hat in the ring for the first time in 1992, the field was crowded with 11 candidates, three of them incumbents.
He didn’t garner enough votes, but he says today he learned a lot as a political newcomer.
“I didn’t win, but I did a lot better than I expected, not knowing anybody or anything,” Monahan says. “Then two years later, I ran again and won.”
His campaign platform in 1994 was pro-business.
Ed Fawcett, director of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce, says back then, he was skeptical of Monahan’s ability to handle the job. That soon changed.
He was a much better councilman than Fawcett thought he would be.
“He was a pleasant surprise to me, and I haven’t changed that opinion,” Fawcett said.
Adds Monahan: “We felt the city was anti-business, anti-growth. I was a local businessman, and I was on the chamber at the time. That was a nice segue.”
Monahan kept his seat from 1994 to 2006 — three consecutive four-year terms — before term limits prevented him from running again. He served as mayor three times during that period.
Those years saw big changes for Costa Mesa in terms of business: new centers anchored by IKEA, Home Depot and Target. The council also oversaw an expansion of the city’s police force, the acquisition of the Farm Sports Complex — since renamed after Jack R. Hammett, a Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor — and the construction of the softball complex at TeWinkle Park.
Those were among the council’s accomplishments, Monahan says. He personally pushed hard for the TeWinkle project.
He says the “little things” were among the most memorable.
“It’s not the glory of bringing in the Home Depot,” Monahan says. “It’s the poor guy with the fallen-down fence at his house, and he can’t figure out what to do. You go out and help him out, whatever it may be. It’s the little things that are cool.”
In 2004, then-Mayor Monahan chipped in what he could for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The ABC reality-TV show took up a short residence on Rosemary Place in the Eastside to fix a house in only a week’s time.
“That was really incredible,” Monahan says. “That’s something that sticks out to me.”
‘A little bit’ Monahan’s
Monahan would go to Rosemary Place from his restaurant nearby, Skosh Monahan’s, at 2000 Newport Blvd. He had opened it a few years earlier after the Newport Rib Co. left the building for Harbor Boulevard.
As with many people, it was his dream to own his own business. He learned what he could from his time at the Goat Hill and the Yard House, applying it to a new Irish-themed endeavor named after his family and a nickname he got back at the Goat Hill.
Folks there called him Skosh because there was another Gary.
“They couldn’t have two Garys,” Monahan says. “So they started calling me Skosh, and it just stuck.”
The word, of Japanese origin, means “just a little” or “a little bit.”
These days, the restaurant and bar employ about 18 people, mostly part time. Many around town know it as a Republican stronghold, where Monahan and his supporters hang out. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) maintains an office upstairs.
It’s also a family endeavor. Monahan’s wife of 20 years does the website, advertising artwork, menus and fliers. Some of his six children contribute as well. His oldest daughter is a server.
His oldest son, who is autistic, does his part too. He works about 30 to 45 minutes a day, helping with tasks like setting up the bar and server stations.
Monahan usually comes in before opening, taking care of his council duties and the restaurant’s marketing, bookkeeping, bills, insurance liability concerns and supplies, to name a few of his tasks.
“It’s a seven-day-a-week job,” he says.
‘It’s just a tragic day’
Monahan got his fourth term in 2008. It was the soonest year he could run again under the restrictions of the new term-limit rule.
By 2010, the issue of the day was fixing the budget. The council majority was intent on reining in costs, namely by addressing the city’s employee pension liabilities.
In March 2011, the council, including then-Mayor Monahan, authorized a sweeping austerity measure: issue six-month layoff notices to more than 200 employees, or about half the city’s workforce; examine outsourcing of the jobs; and reinvest in long-overdue capital improvement projects.
Employees facing pink slips fought back and eventually filed a lawsuit, which is pending. One of them, however, facing his own layoff notice, jumped off the roof of City Hall to his death.
The reasons why 29-year-old city maintenance worker Huy Pham committed suicide March 17 were never clear, but his city personnel file indicates he was facing emotional problems of his own. The coroner also found traces of cocaine in his system at the time of his death.
When city staff and emergency responders rushed to the frantic scene at 77 Fair Drive, trying to console themselves and understand what had occurred, one city leader was conspicuously absent: the mayor.
Monahan was at Skosh Monahan’s on what happened to be the busiest event of the year for his Irish pub: St. Patrick’s Day.
Opponents used that fact in a campaign against him and his colleagues who voted in favor of the layoffs.
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., contributed a key piece: a smiling picture of Monahan outside his bar, dressed in full Irish style, complete with kilt, on the day of Pham’s suicide.
“When tragedy struck Costa Mesa City Hall, Mayor Gary Monahan was too busy to show up,” an ad produced by Repair Costa Mesa read. “His priority was St. Patrick’s Day.”
It also showed Monahan at a press conference, walking out of the room, refusing to answer reporters’ questions.
“This is something that could’ve been avoided,” Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn., said to the Daily Pilot at the time. “Basically, we’re a very tight family here in the city … but the mayor chose not to show up here; he’s not part of the family.”
Billy Folsom, a maintenance worker who has been with the city for 31 years and is an outspoken critic of the council majority, says in the years before the council voted for the layoffs, Monahan was a friend, and was cooperative and forthcoming. He approved contracts in the employees’ favor time and time again, Folsom says.
Folsom, now 59, and his wife even had their 50th birthday parties at Skosh Monahan’s.
“He went from being a guy that was reasonable, conscientious, moderate and seemingly concerned about the community to a person who just threw his lot in with the majority of the council,” Folsom says. “That’s what frustrated us. He was very reasonable during the negotiations.”
After the November 2010 elections, “It felt like he kind of turned his back on the employees and the citizens and threw his lot in with Mr. Righeimer and those guys,” Folsom says. “It hurt. It hurt personally and it hurt a lot of people I work with.”
Within a few days of Pham’s death, Monahan apologized for not showing up at City Hall, contending that him being there after the suicide would’ve likely further upset the crowd. He admits that his reputation has taken a hit since that spring afternoon.
“I still, to this day, don’t know if there was a win-win in any of it for me, no matter what I was going to do,” he says. “Different people had different ideas of what I should’ve done, and I wasn’t going to win, no matter what.”
He says for some people, “that’s what I’ll be remembered for, even though at the end of this term, it’ll be 20 years on the council.”
“It’s just a tragic day,” he adds. “You don’t know how you’re gonna react; you don’t know how other people are gonna react. It’ll always be a tragic day in my mind.”
The challenge of it all
Monahan kept his mayoral seat until March 2012, when he resigned the largely ceremonial position. Councilman Eric Bever was appointed in his place and served until being termed out in November.
“I got to make a decision, and being mayor and all the additional duties takes a lot of time and has taken me away from my family and my business,” Monahan told the Pilot at the time. “I’m not giving my family what they deserve, and the city what it deserves.”
Robin Leffler, president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government — a grass-roots group that formed in the wake of the layoff notices, which have since been rescinded — says while her organization doesn’t generally support Monahan, she personally liked his mayoral style.
“He always ran a great meeting,” Leffler says. “He was really even-handed about judging sometimes whether to let things go on a little longer, the public comments. He didn’t cut people off.”
In the November general election, Monahan ran for his fifth term on the “3Ms” slate; Councilman Steve Mensinger and Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy were the other two.
Organized labor and CM4RG were among the main groups campaigning against him.
Both also contributed volunteer time and money to fight a proposed city charter, which Monahan and others argued was needed to give the city the tools to better manage its finances while gaining independence from the state. The charter, which CM4RG called a hastily written power grab, was soundly rejected by voters.
When asked why he’s stayed in the political game as long as he has, Monahan replies that it’s a challenge he’s willing to accept.
“The challenge you’ve taken on is to make the city what you believe is better. Each person will define that differently … it’s a constant struggle, because if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. There’s no such thing as staying in place.”