City planner questions police chief's endorsement

A Costa Mesa planning commissioner has sent city officials what he terms a "formal grievance" regarding Police Chief Tom Gazsi's decision to endorse Newport Beach City Councilman Keith Curry's bid for state Assembly.

"I don't believe a Costa Mesa police chief should be endorsing political candidates in races," Colin McCarthy wrote in an email Friday to city CEO Tom Hatch and City Atty. Tom Duarte. "It is [prominently] listed on Mr. Curry's website. City employees using their titles should stay out of races."

McCarthy, an attorney who said he was complaining in his capacity "as a resident," also wrote that the endorsement sends "a bad message and has to violate some city or state policy."

In an interview, Gazsi said the state's government code specifically allows him, as an individual, free participation in political activities. He said he did not make his endorsement officially as the chief of police or in relation to any of his professional endeavors.

"There's nothing that prohibits police officers' ability to participate in political activities, associate with those they choose to associate with or express themselves, as protected under the U.S. Constitution," Gazsi said.

He added that "there are plenty of instances of government executives who have endorsed a variety of candidates," and his doing so is not uncommon.

"Some of my professional colleagues would suggest that it's inappropriate, while in public service, to endorse candidates," Gazsi said. "However, to remain silent about potentially elected officials that have influence over a region of our country doesn't seem reasonable."

In a follow-up interview, McCarthy called Gazsi's endorsement "inappropriate." McCarthy said he was worried about a top-ranking law enforcement official — one who's sworn to protect campaign laws — showing favoritism to a candidate.

"The city manager/CEO would never endorse a supervisor candidate in a race," he said. "Why is this any different?"

Gazsi, a longtime Newport-Mesa resident, said he's been friends with Curry and his wife, Pamela, for decades. Before being selected in 2011 as Costa Mesa's police chief, Gazsi worked for the Newport Beach Police Department for more than 30 years.

"I have the upmost regard and respect for Keith and Pam," Gazsi said.

A recent posting on the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. Facebook page also questioned Gazsi's support.

"Do you think it is appropriate for the Costa Mesa Police Cheif [sic] to endorse political candiates [sic] using his official title?" the posting read.

McCarthy is a founder of the CMTA and its former president. The Facebook posting was not attributable to any single member of the group, though several members have permission to post online on its behalf as "administrators."

McCarthy said he did not create the posting.

CMTA President Jim Fitzpatrick, who serves with McCarthy on the Planning Commission, said the grievance does not necessarily reflect the views of the entire group.

"I support Gazsi, especially at this time when he's trying to change a culture at the CMPD," Fitzpatrick said. "I personally think we should be supportive of Chief Gazsi as he goes through that transition."

Gazsi said he consulted the Costa Mesa city attorney's office before endorsing Curry, who is running for the 74th Assembly District.

In response to the CMTA's posting, Gazsi said, "I would like to think that some form of a conservative political group would appreciate my right to freedom of political speech and expression."

Curry announced Gazsi's endorsement Feb. 19. In that same announcement, Curry said he has the support of other Costa Mesa officials, including Councilman Gary Monahan and former Mayors Jack Hammett and Arlene Schafer.

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