Sounding Off: Unions not to blame for high costs

With Tuesday's signing of the contract with the police association, the city of Costa Mesa dodged a bullet — at least for the time being. Kudos to Council Members Wendy Leece, Gary Monahan, and Katrina Foley for putting the community first and rejecting partisan politics and outside influences.

Even with the new contract, the outcome of the upcoming City Council elections could negatively affect public safety in Costa Mesa for a long time. With a declaration of war on the employee compensation and benefit packages by council candidate Jim Righeimer, the unwillingness of Councilman Eric Bever to participate in negotiations, and the ongoing pressure by conservative Republicans to pressure Leece into stopping negotiations and voting as directed, the implications are clear.

The council majority was hoping that Righeimer would be elected and that they would be able to dictate their terms to the police and fire employees. They do not want to collaborate, they do not want negotiate, they want to impose conditions that have more to do about their own political careers and less to do about the safety and security of Costa Mesa.

The bargaining units for police and fire employees, with the well-being of their families at stake, have attempted to negotiate new contracts that lowered pay and that increased their contribution to the pension plans. The Costa Mesa Fire Assn. opened up their negotiations when they did not have to in order to make concessions that they did not have to make. On the Fire Assn. initiative, the city will save well over a half-million dollars. The police association has had a standing offer to the city with substantial concessions, but they are operating without a contract because negotiations are being stalled at the City Council level. Because the council majority saw fit to let the contract lapse in hopes that Jim Righeimer would be elected, it cost the city $254,000 a month.

Righeimer uses every opportunity to call the police and fire bargaining units "Unions" as a derogatory epithet, hoping that the term will strike a negative note in the community. He does not acknowledge that the police and fire associations are prohibited by law from engaging in strikes, job slowdowns or any type of job action. If negotiations do fail, the city can impose a contract. It is hardly the stuff of rabid unionism. The employees can accept the contract or they can leave. Leaving is perhaps the most costly outcome for the city.

Righeimer forgets that it was a rising economy and an extremely competitive job market, not the unions, that drove up public safety costs (just as a declining economy is exerting downward pressure). Every city, including Costa Mesa, was doing everything they could to attract, hire, and most importantly, retain quality police officers and firefighters.

The open hostility of Righeimer and his cronies for public safety employees does not bode well for this community. He has not been elected to the council yet he is already in a full-blown war with the public safety units that keep this city safe. This suggests a very dark future for this community.

While this community wants sound financial management by city government, public safety has always been the top priority. Gangs, graffiti and safe schools have always trumped cost cutting. There has never been a mandate from the community to create a dispirited and downsized Police and Fire departments operating with a near total lack of political support and yet sadly, that is what the future holds.

We need City Council members who can collaborate and work with the city employees to take care of the issues important to the community. We need a City Council that puts public safety first because that is the community mandate. I encourage voters to vote for Chris McEvoy and Wendy Leece. Through effective collaboration, we can balance the budget and keep this community a safe place to live.

CLAY G. EPPERSON is a retired Costa Mesa Police Department lieutenant. He lives in Costa Mesa.

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