The Bell Curve: The arrogance, the ego and the ugly

Coming to you straight from the American College Dictionary: "Arrogant: making unwarrantable claims or pretensions; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud; haughty, imperious, presumptuous..."

And this: "Ego: having or regarding self as the center of all things; conceit."

Sound familiar? Play these definitions back against each other and you have, in this corner, Costa Mesa Planning Commission Chairman Jim Righeimer and, facing him from the opposite corner, the Costa Mesa Police Assn.

And, in the middle, on Nov. 2, are the citizens of Costa Mesa.

They are being asked to promote Righeimer to the City Council where he would be provided a much broader stage for his massive ego presently on display in a traffic incident. Or, instead, follow the lead of the police union — already hostile to Righeimer for his stance against rising police pensions — using its muscle for a personal attack on him built on piffle.

And, finally, for the childishness all this exposes in so-called public servants.

Unfortunately there are no laws against either arrogance or ego. We must take the best — or the least worse — of what we are offered. And, in this sorry episode, the pickings are lean.

Pilot readers have been updated regularly on the details. Righeimer was caught in a traffic jam occasioned in large part by a sobriety checkpoint set up by the Costa Mesa Police Department at a busy intersection during a weeknight rush hour. He left his car to complain to officers running DUI tests about the checkpoint's timing and location.

When the cops on the job didn't genuflect to an imperious planning commissioner, this turned into an exchange in which Righeimer demanded an audience with the city manager and police chief. He got his audience the following day, but the ball, by then, was rolling. Meanwhile, it was also well covered by local media as it regressed from an administrative look at sobriety checks to an irrelevant pile of personal history to threats of a lawsuit, each step of which tells us more about the quality of our public servants and less about checkpoint safety.

What Righeimer should have done when he found himself trapped in a clearly dangerous traffic situation was what those of us lesser mortals would have done: cuss the idiot who caused this to happen, tough it out and write a letter to the Pilot the next morning.

Instead, he got out of his car and engaged the officers who were trying to move the traffic while Righeimer was allegedly throwing his planning commissioner's weight around. After Righeimer got his meeting, the participants could have disengaged at that point, but the police union chose to keep the acrimony alive. Had Righeimer quit while he was ahead, he would have looked more like a saint than an overbearing egotist out to court — instead of avoid — danger.

But, instead, the union went for the dirt. What they got was closer to a soufflé of liens, business failures and late payments of loans, all properly repaid, that made Righeimer seem almost heroic. But he, apparently, didn't see it that way, either. Instead, Righeimer also chose to keep the heat on by sending a letter through his attorney to his major critics, particularly the police union and blogger Geoff West.

I know about such letters. As a very visible freelance writer for six decades, I got my share of threatening letters. It's a device that rich individuals and corporations use to scare off critics. Most of the time there is no intention to follow up with a lawsuit, but the recipient can't be sure because such letter writers have the resources to back up their threats with actual filings. It doesn't much matter who wins the lawsuit because the writer is going to be hurt enough by legal expenses — or just the threat of them — that he likely won't be troublesome again.

Only once in my experience did such a letter actually turn into a lawsuit. A pair of John Birch Society cops sued me for libel with no whisper of evidence to support their case, and they had plenty of financial backing. The case went to a jury, but only after a scary day for me when the magazine paying my legal bills was dropped from the case because the judge wanted to go to lunch. For two hours it was all on me. But after lunch, the judge reinstated the magazine and the jury found for me.

I suspect, though, that my subconscious kept me out of such situations in the years that followed, so my experience simply became another example of wealth and power calling the shots. Hopefully that will not be the case in Righeimer vs. the police union. But on Nov. 2, we'll at least get a clue as to whether arrogance and ego are deterrents or aids in the passage to public office in Costa Mesa.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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