Chairman is no Dave Wheeler

Editor's note: William Lobdell, who served as Daily Pilot editor before going on to a distinguished career in investigative reporting at the Los Angeles Times, has agreed to write a weekly column for the Pilot. His column will appear on Fridays.


Why do Costa Mesans have to go all Fox News Channel on each other when it comes to Jim Righeimer?

I wouldn't want to hang around Righeimer — a Costa Mesa planning commissioner who is running for City Council on Nov. 2 — during a thunderstorm. The guy's turned into a human lightning rod.

In the latest example, Righeimer last month gave a tepid tongue-lashing to police officers who decided it was a good idea to set up a DUI checkpoint on Harbor Boulevard during the evening rush hour.

Judging by some of the reaction, you would have thought he had sprayed graffiti on the walls of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, proposed Costa Mesa become a sanctuary city, or streaked across the football field during halftime of an Estancia game (sorry for the disturbing vision for those who have laid eyes on Righeimer).

But Righeimer's actions on that fateful September evening should raise, at most, an eyebrow — and maybe a sympathetic chuckle from those of us who wish we had the nerve to speak the truth to authority gone astray.

After being stuck in rush-hour traffic exacerbated by the DUI checkpoint that began at 6 p.m. (apparently to get a jump on the happy hour drinkers), Righeimer got out of his car and told police officers it was "ridiculous" and "outrageous" to inconvenience thousands of motorists with a checkpoint right after most motorists were coming home from work.

He identified himself as a planning commissioner and demanded that a meeting be held the next day so this kind of traffic mess could be avoided. On a recently released audiotape recorded by the police, Righeimer spoke in measured tones and ended the conversation by telling one officer, "Not your fault, you're doing your job, I understand."

Since this isn't Fox News, let's concede what Righeimer should have done. He should have stayed in his car, drove home and — after a night's sleep and a cooler head — complained to the appropriate city officials about the wisdom of the checkpoint's location and timing.

I'm also not thrilled that Righeimer identified himself as a planning commissioner, but he told me this week he was merely trying to be transparent.

But let's also acknowledge the shrillness (and silliness) behind the attacks on Righeimer. The local police association president has labeled him a "thug." And his political enemies (the conservative Righeimer, not known for his tactfulness, has many) have suggested that the council hopeful could face criminal charges.

For what? Talking with a police officer?

Seeing the pettiness of this all, my mind kept going back 25 years to the days of Councilman Dave Wheeler. Now there was a guy who could divide a town for good reason.

In 1984, Costa Mesa residents voted onto the City Council the 29-year-old, slow-growth iconoclast. He was a gifted defense and personal injury attorney and community activist who reported his I.Q. to be 191.

During his single term, the populist Wheeler enraged developers and the Chamber of Commerce with his uncompromising slow-growth views (builder George Argyros called him a "tragedy in many respects"), chatted up locals during breaks at council meetings and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day.

He was a full-tilt kind of guy.

It wasn't surprising to many observers that in 1985 Wheeler got involved in a road rage incident on the San Diego (405) Freeway, during which he angrily waved his councilman's badge at a fellow motorist in the next lane. Wheeler ordered him to pull over.

The other driver, also a Costa Mesa resident, drove home with Wheeler in pursuit and then ran into his apartment and called the authorities, as the councilman banged on the door and yelled that he was a police officer.

When Costa Mesa officers arrived, they said they smelled alcohol on Wheeler's breath (he later admitted to having a few drinks) and drove him home. No charges were filed.

Wheeler, though quickly reprimanded by the City Council for impersonating a police officer, said he didn't do anything wrong.

Now there's a political figure worthy of polarization. (By the way, can you imagine what would happen if police officers today drove home a council member who had been drinking?)

To wrap up the story, Wheeler lasted only four years on the council, saying he was tired of trying to buck the system. Drawn to wildlife, he moved to the Big Bear area, where he spent much of his time bird and animal watching. He later raced Formula cars. Wheeler died in 2008 of lung and brain cancer — having packed a lot of living into 53 years.

During my conversation with Righeimer this week, he, like Wheeler, wouldn't admit that he did anything wrong. He believed the DUI checkpoint had created a safety hazard, backing up vehicles onto the freeway off ramp, and needed to be taken down. The resulting brouhaha was about politics, not what actually happened at the corner of Harbor and Gisler that evening.

On this point, I agree. I just hope the next Righeimer controversy — and there will be one — will be worthy of Costa Mesa.

The streaking at halftime has the right potential. And imagine the size of the campaign sign that would be painted on Righeimer's, uh, body.

William Lobdell is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times religion beat writer and a Costa Mesa resident. His e-mail is

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