Editor's note: Joseph N. Bell has the day off. His column will reappear Nov. 4. The following is a special column from Steve Smith.
At the Oct. 14 Costa Mesa City Council candidate forum, the five candidates were asked what they believed is the most important issue facing the city. All of them answered "the budget."
And all were wrong.
The city's historical deficit is not the problem, it is a symptom. The problem is, and has been, a lack of qualified financial minds on the council — people with business experience who would have had more success avoiding a stifling deficit and would certainly now have more success reducing it.
With those minds at the helm for the past few years, the city may have avoided the fiscal challenges that have led to candidate Jim Righeimer's call for a review of public service compensation — all compensation, by the way, not just the police.
They would have avoided it, in part, by raising the transient occupancy tax (TOT) years ago instead of leaving millions of dollars on the table all this time. Passage of Measure L to raise the tax this year is expected to generate $1.3 million per year in general fund revenue. Had the TOT been raised four or more years ago, Costa Mesans may not have had to suffer service cuts.
But the council did not propose a raise and must now rely on generating revenue in a recession the old-fashioned way — they have to earn it.
Out of the current council members and the 2010 council candidates, Righeimer is the only person who has the sufficient commercial business experience necessary to dig Costa Mesa out of its financial mess. And the case could even be made that Righeimer's long-ago financial mistakes make him even more qualified for he has certainly learned from them.
Righeimer, chairman of the city's Planning Commission, has been nothing short of a Costa Mesa rainmaker. Recently, his involvement in business negotiations is resulting in a makeover of Harbor Boulevard near the San Diego (405) Freeway, including several new tenants, and an exciting revitalization of Triangle Square.
It is precisely this type of councilman who police need more than ever — someone who knows how to generate the revenue that can help get the city in the black and help maintain the current compensation plans not only for the police, but for all of the public service employees.
But union leaders, apparently unable to see beyond today, failed to acknowledge Righeimer's long-term value to the security of their wages and benefits.
The Costa Mesa Police Assn.'s emotional, illogical approach has produced dreadful campaign tactics unprecedented in the city's history: a character assassination of Righeimer that has crossed the line of acceptability.
I do not agree with Righeimer on a few key issues facing Costa Mesa, but I will vote for him to send a message to the CMPA that its type of campaign has no place in Costa Mesa or anywhere else.
At its worst, it has the potential to scare off good people from running for office out of fear that their long-ago mistakes or misfortunes will be dragged around town on a trailer, as Righeimer's have, or broadcast on the Internet for the world to see, as Righeimer's have.
Through it all, Righeimer has kept his composure. He was relaxed and smiling at the candidates forum Oct. 14 and presented himself well. Perhaps the CMPA deserves our thanks, for it has made some residents realize that during future negotiations with developers, unions or vendors, they'll want someone as tough as Righeimer sitting on their side of the table.
Instead of attacking Righeimer over the past several weeks, CMPA should have been supporting him.
STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to email@example.com.