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City: Reforms are on the way following 60th investigation

City: Reforms are on the way following 60th investigation
Jack Hammett, former Costa Mesa mayor, cuts cake with current Mayor Jim Righeimer and Councilwoman Wendy Leece at the city’s 60th anniversary celebration in late June.
(Brittany Woolsey, Daily Pilot)

For the city of Costa Mesa’s part, the investigation into what went wrong during its 60th anniversary celebration last summer seems to be over, but for others, it’s gaining new momentum and renewed interest.

Citing the matter as an ongoing and confidential investigation, for months City Hall denied requests to release nearly all documents related to the three-day “60 & Fabulous” party aimed at celebrating Costa Mesa’s community spirit, history and heritage.

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On Thursday, those requests were granted, albeit late, with the release of more than 1,000 pages of contracts, invoices and other matters concerning the celebration.

The take away from the city? Indeed, city policies and procedures weren’t followed, the 60th festivities went far over budget, city coffers paid the $84,000 shortfall for a party whose total cost was $518,000, and reforms are on the way.

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Furthermore, as a matter of routine, the report was forwarded to the Orange County district attorney’s office because of possible municipal code violations.

On Friday, however, members the City Council and other stakeholders expressed both frustration and skepticism, saying they’ll be looking over the documents closely in the coming weeks to see what they find for themselves.

“I think it’s up to the public still to ask the hard questions,” said Councilwoman Wendy Leece.

Unfortunately, Leece added, the 60th party “really grew into something that was never envisioned by the committee. It cost a lot more, and for that I apologize and take responsibility. Everything should always be driven by the budget, and this shows that exceptions were made.

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“It’s embarrassing.”

City CEO Tom Hatch has a different view of the matter. Earlier this week, he and other city officials told the Daily Pilot about the various wrongdoings surrounding the June 28-30 celebration — lack of competitive bidding for some contracts, missing purchase orders, a serious time crunch to get things done — but that there are positive aspects that came out during the event and after it.

“The 60th will be remembered as a fabulous celebration that united us in love for our community and our eclectic spirit,” Hatch said. “I will never forget the positive feeling of walking down Fair Drive and seeing thousands of friends and neighbors sharing our local art, food, music, history and culture. The event was so successful due to the hard work of so many volunteers, community partners, as well as city leaders and employees.”

Mayor Jim Righeimer echoed some of Hatch’s sentiment.

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“I think everybody agrees that it was a great event,” he said. “It was very much enjoyed and probably is one of the best events the city has put together.”

Still, Righeimer said the event planning’s shortcomings have now highlighted some rooted problems within the city that were in place before some of the current members were elected to the council.

“If there’s any good news about this, it’s that we’ve seen this weakness in the system,” Righeimer said. “We have to make sure now, as a council, that steps and procedures are put in place so that this kind of thing can’t happen again.”

Added Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger: “The question I have is: Where was the oversight, the checks and balances? All contracts should be properly vetted, with proper oversight.”

Sue Lester, a former council candidate and frequent critic of Mensinger and Righeimer, volunteered at the event and served on the large citizens committee that put it on.

On Friday, she called the investigation’s executive summary “candy-coated.” The inquiry should have included a more thorough forensic audit, she contended. Not doing one, she said, was “ridiculous.”

City officials said this week that the 60th party’s roughly $45,000 investigation — which included a comprehensive and independent financial audit — did not rise to the level of needing a forensic audit. The reason, they said, was because all the money was accounted for, and no funds were determined to be missing or used for personal gain.

Furthermore, a forensic audit alone would have cost about $75,000 to do, which would have brought up the total cost of the 60th investigation even further, said city spokesman Bill Lobdell.

“I’m glad no employee benefited from it,” Lester said, “but we paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to people without any guide as to why we spent that money. To brush this off as, ‘They just didn’t know the policy’ — I’m sorry, I can’t swallow that.

“I attended all those 60th anniversary meetings. The people from the city that conducted those meetings … they went over purchasing procedures. They went over guidelines of having a qualified vendor.”

Lester also expressed hope that the district attorney would give the report serious consideration.

“I really hope the D.A.'s office takes this as seriously as they did the destruction of a $5 campaign sign,” Lester said, referring to a former city employee, Steven Charles White, who is facing a misdemeanor charge from the Orange County district attorney’s office for alleged sign vandalism during the 2012 general election season.

Longtime Costa Mesa resident Mike Scheafer served as chairman of the committee. He said he was particularly bothered that several documents were signed on his behalf.

“It’s concerning to me that all of this stuff was done without my approval,” he said.

Still, Scheafer expressed optimism about the reforms presented by City Hall and that, hopefully, “people can take this and move on.”

“I would hope we wouldn’t continue to beat this up,” he said, “and that we do stuff that’s gonna help with the 75th anniversary party.”


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