A kinder, gentler blog

Dennis Popp's first interaction with Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer was framed by a loaded question.

"I've been reading that you're trying to be emperor of Costa Mesa," Popp recalled asking him. "Where's your crown?"

Popp had just stepped in front of the politician, who was walking. By Popp's account, a startled Righeimer looked at him and replied: "Well, it wore a bald spot up here, and I left it at home."

In the two years since that small showdown, Popp has dug into the political scene and found himself often in agreement with the mayor and his supporters. He puts his sentiments on his blog, Costa Mesa Politics and Personalities, which marked its first anniversary in August.

The website's stated goal: "To fit into the blogosphere like the bracingly tart taste of yogurt fits between the boringly bland and the unspeakably vile."

Though critics call him a mouthpiece for the Righeimer-led City Council majority, Popp said he doesn't always step in line with that group. He's even had "heated arguments" with nearly all five council members.

"I look at politics this way: No one is trying to overthrow the city and raze it," Popp said. "What we're trying to do is improve the city, and we don't agree about how that should be done. I have never had any hint that I was error-free, so I could be wrong. People who yell, scream and argue with me are helping me learn."

On the blog, he aims to keep things civil. He doesn't name-check people or groups, instead taking a more philosophical approach on a web page that's reminiscent of late-'90s Internet design trends, complete with gentle blue colors and a background containing all the dignified swirls of Victorian wallpaper.

Despite the attention he gets, Popp maintains a humble attitude about his hobby.

"There are people here who make the Segerstrom Center work," he said. "There are people who perform there, there are people who run the city, there are people who run the Police Department, there are people who are actually influential with all of these people, and I'm just writing a blog."

Popp's online journal stands in stark contrast to A Bubbling Cauldron, a more widely read blog published by Eastside resident Geoff West.

West's page, which started in 2005, offers "a few facts and a lot of opinion" and takes a more combative tone with government types than most anything found on Politics and Personalities.

Righeimer and his political inner circle are regular targets for West, who views himself as more of a community watchdog, labeling those who heap praise on the council majority as sycophantic.

Anointed Best Blog by the OC Weekly in 2008, West's website is considered a must-read by community activists and critics, as well as City Hall insiders and members of the local media. Many Costa Mesans, however, are just beginning to learn about Popp's missives.

Yet as different as West's and Popp's online work is, they share several traits.

Both men are retired. Both are nearly the same age: Popp is 71; West is 72. Both own homes in desirable Costa Mesa neighborhoods. Both are Vietnam-era Army veterans. Both are registered Republicans.

Both write with a solid grasp of language and use proper grammar.

Both blogs, hosted through blogspot.com, even have a nearly identical layout: Entries are subdivided into shorter sections, clip art is sprinkled throughout, and certain words are in bold typeface for effect.

Perhaps most significantly, both men attend many public meetings and routinely refrain from joining the lines of public speakers waiting to sound off on the issues of the day. Instead, they keep their opinions within, opting to publish them online after sessions have adjourned.

The similarities, though, largely end there.

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Nursing, military, police service

Popp is an eight-year resident of Costa Mesa. He resides in the Lower Birds, a well-manicured tract just north of Fairview Park.

He was born in Wyoming and raised in Utah. He has lived in California for about 45 years.

Popp worked as a nurse for 30 years and still maintains his license.

"There's a lot of pressure to be right," he said of the medical field. "You really don't want to make mistakes and, of course, you will. The mistakes can be disastrous, and there's a tremendous emotional cost in it."

He started that career late in life, around age 40. With an aptitude test pointing him toward medicine, he decided to go to nursing school in the San Francisco Bay Area.

That came about a decade after his finishing a nearly 13-year service for the Army, both in active duty and as a reservist. He was a special forces officer and left the military with the rank of major.

When asked how that time influences him today, he said: "What you learn about yourself in any kind of endeavor is what influences the future. So going out and being confused, scared and having to work anyway and reach your goals, that still influences me today. That's good stuff that I learned."

Popp also served as a reserve police officer in Ogden, Utah. Having worked in law enforcement, he said he understands the plight of the street cop.

"I don't think anyone who hasn't been a cop understands," Popp said. "It's very different to be out there where everybody actually hates you. And the people who like you or seem to be friendly probably want something."

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Starting the blog

Unlike some of the others who pack the council chambers, Popp hasn't been a longtime observer of city politics. It's safe to say, however, that he's now embedded within the relatively small population of supporters and critics who play close attention to the happenings at 77 Fair Drive.

Since starting the blog, Popp's no longer just an observer but an active participant. He serves on the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee and the 60th Anniversary Planning Committee.

Popp sees his page as one point of a "blogosphere triangle" for Costa Mesa. The other points are West's A Bubbling Cauldron and M.H. Millard's CM Press, which began in 1998. The three are considered the primary blogs about Costa Mesa and are regularly updated, though all three differ highly in approach, content and philosophy.

Millard intersperses his musings on Costa Mesa with posts and links about race, which has earned him scorn from critics who say he crosses the line. Millard contends that his work has a "scientific" bent and is not racist, though West and others sharply disagree.

"I started the CM Press to help spur improvement of the Westside," Millard wrote in an email, "and to support those who would help with that while at the same time staying committed to smaller, less intrusive government that just leaves people alone.

"Over the years I've found staying local is too limiting, and I now often write from a plain-talking, philosophical viewpoint about national and international affairs and problems, the human condition, the big questions of existence and evolution."

Though Popp and West are somewhat critical of each other, Popp does give his counterpart due credit.

"I have to hand it to him," Popp said. "He actually got me involved in politics."

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'Fun' and 'boring'

One big difference between West and Popp is that the former names names online — be they city employee, public speaker or council member — and sometimes includes a picture taken from afar.

Popp, though, rarely uses names, even when talking about people he may agree with or admire. He also doesn't post pictures of who's who in Costa Mesa.

And while West has called Popp's blog "boring," "pandering" to the council majority and something "much like a cow chewing its cud," Popp describes his work as "fun."

"Sometimes I'm an editorial writer, sometimes I'm a reporter, and sometimes I'm just a guy blathering," Popp said. "I do mine as fun, not in a way of hilarious like riding a merry-go-round. But fun like, 'Here's this idea. This is a stupid idea and what do you think?'"

Politics and Personalities is about attacking ideas, not people, he said.

That's the kind of "independent thinking" the community needs, said Jim Fitzpatrick, chairman of the city's Planning Commission and a member of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., which supports the council majority.

What's presented on Popp's site is "void of emotion, as he shares his thoughts about issues important in our community," Fitzpatrick added. "Once you throw out the emotion from the dialogue, I think you land on his conclusions."

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who often posts links to Popp's entries on Twitter and Facebook, called him the "Andy Rooney of bloggers."

"There are bloggers that are full of anger, and there's bloggers that are full of ideas," Mensinger said. "Even if the idea is contradictory to what my idea is, I prefer to read the guys who are full of ideas."

Of Politics and Personalities' civil tone, Millard said "different strokes for different folks." He added that if the site supports improvement in Costa Mesa, that's OK with him.

Praise for Popp's blog from elected and appointed officials comes as no surprise to West, who called Popp the "de facto spokesperson for the folks in charge at City Hall."

"I found it amusing that he copied the style of my blog — the use of images in particular," West wrote in an email. "He apparently agrees with me that an image is worth a lot to make a point."

Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, a nonpartisan grass-roots group that frequently opposes the council majority, often links to and praises West's work on its Facebook page.

"I think [West] does a real community service," said CM4RG President Robin Leffler. "I think he really informs people about what's going on, and he infuses his opinions."

West is a much more engaging writer than Popp, Leffler said.

"It was just not really interesting," Leffler said of Politics and Personalities, "and it seemed to just parrot the council majority party line."

Councilwoman Wendy Leece called Popp a kind person but one who "waxes a little too philosophical" for her taste.

"He's an involved citizen," said Leece, who, along with Councilwoman Sandy Genis, make up the council minority, "but I wish he would really dig into the issues more and be more analytical in the presentation of his writing."

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Cats and unpermitted trails

A comparison of two recent entries demonstrates the bloggers' key differences.

Popp's Sept. 2 entry, "Engineering OK after all," attempts to downplay criticism of traffic engineering.

"So instead of castigating traffic engineers, learn to make a right turn," Popp concludes.

West's Sept. 4 entry, "The Great DG Trail Mystery Unraveled (Almost)," asks Mensinger to "step up" and take responsibility for a controversial and unpermitted trail in Fairview Park that encroached on federally protected habitat.

"I'm disappointed that this whole thing happened, but more disappointed that our mayor pro tem doesn't have the guts to admit his part in this whole mess," West wrote.

Mensinger agreed with city employees' assertion that it was probably volunteers from a booster group who worked on the trail.

"It's unfortunate that some folks have chosen to politicize a dirt path for kids," Mensinger said..

West's entry is accompanied by a still photo of Mensinger in an Estancia football uniform.

Popp's choice of photos for his traffic engineering posting? Two overhead diagrams — and a yawning lion.

It turns out that the retired nurse is a cat guy.

"That cat expresses the thing that I'm trying to say here," Popp said. "And I like cats."

[For the record, Sept. 9: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said he did not know who put down a decomposed granite trail in Fairview Park. In fact, Mensinger said he agreed with city employees, who said it was members of a volunteer booster organization.]

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