Costa Mesa Outsourcing Debate: It's time to take back Costa Mesa

Editor's note: The Daily Pilot has decided to publish opposing commentaries on Costa Mesa's outsourcing plans. Wednesday's print edition features arguments against the proposal from Geoff West, publisher of A Bubbling Cauldron , a local blog. Thursday's print edition will feature arguments in favor of the plan from Councilman Steve Mensinger. Both pieces can be read together on DailyPilot.com.

In the more than 37 years that I've lived in Costa Mesa — more than half my life — I can confidently say that I've never seen such a sad and contentious couple of weeks than those we've had recently.

Although the city has been in turmoil since the new City Council was seated in January — with the specter of losing their jobs hanging over the heads of almost all city employees and the very obvious intent of the majority on the council to ignore public input on virtually every decision they made — it all came to a head March 17.

In direct opposition to then-City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow's opinion, no analysis had been done of units within the city government that might be candidates for outsourcing, and on St. Patrick's Day six-month layoff notices were to be distributed to more than 200 employees, including the entire Fire Department.

Among those scheduled to receive a notice was 29-year-old Huy Pham, a maintenance worker who had been with the city a little more than four years. Pham, an avid hiker, was at home that day, recuperating from an injured foot. He was called into work to receive his notice along with his peers.

Instead of going to his work site at the Corporation Yard he went to City Hall, made his way to the roof and, shortly after 3 p.m., leaped to his death, landing near the eastside employee entrance. On a day that had already filled City Hall with apprehension and despair, his death was a final, cruel exclamation point — one that has launched a chain of events unseen before in our city.

Following a telephone call from a friend, I arrived at City Hall that day about 15 minutes after Pham died. I spent the next few hours talking with and consoling friends who worked for the city and observing the immediate aftermath of this tragedy. I saw the police and fire staff performing their duties flawlessly and professionally. I watched as Police Chaplain Mike Decker, in the building at the time by coincidence, console senior staff members and help coordinate a team of crisis counselors to help the city staff deal with this event.

An hour after Pham died, Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Jim Righeimer arrived to be briefed by interim Police Chief Steven Staveley and his staff before adjourning into City Hall. An angry employee had to be restrained from attacking Righeimer as he entered the building. Wendy Leece arrived shortly thereafter and remained outside with the staff, offering solace to them.

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Monahan stayed at work

I did not see Mayor Gary Monahan, though, and the reason for his absence became painfully clear as the day wore on. Instead of rushing to City Hall to confirm that the situation was under control and to console distraught staff members, he chose instead to remain at his pub, dressed in his kilt, and continued to celebrate what he described for a member of the news media as "the biggest day of my life."

Later that day, after the police cleared the scene and Pham's body was removed by the county coroner, a small shrine began to appear as concerned staffers and residents showed up with flowers and candles. It grew overnight.

On the evening of March 18, a candlelight vigil was announced by concerned members of the community and was attended by more than 100 people. There was no formal ceremony, only a short speech and a prayer led by organizer Greg Ridge. The remainder of the time, visitors stood and prayed and consoled each other. I'm told that people came and went throughout the night, quietly paying their respects to Pham's memory. This vigil was attended by many former city leaders, including recently retired City Manager Allan Roeder.

The only member of the City Council in attendance was Leece.

As if this situation was not already bad enough, a hastily called press conference was announced for 4 p.m. that day. It was in a small, inadequate conference room on the fifth floor of City Hall and was open only to "credentialed members of the media." At that press conference, the unedited version of which may be seen on YouTube, City Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch read a prepared statement and permitted no questions to be asked, even though four of the five members of the City Council, including the previously absent Mayor Monahan, were in attendance. The members of the media were aghast and demanded answers, but received none.

At that completely inadequate press conference, Hatch announced the hiring of journalist Bill Lobdell, most recently with the Pilot as a columnist, as a consultant with the charter to "create a communication structure by which Costa Mesa will become the most transparent government in the nation." It was later learned that Lobdell will be paid $3,000 per week for a 90-day assignment. With that announcement, some of the angst and anger by employees and residents shifted from the City Council to Lobdell.

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Faith restored

On March 21, two events occurred at City Hall that restored my faith in the compassion of the people of Costa Mesa. At noon, in a steady, cold rain, more than 100 people circumscribed City Hall for an hour, huddled together under umbrellas, quietly praying, singing hymns and showing support for the grieving staff members inside the building. It was an amazing, inspirational sight.

Later that afternoon, the rain clouds parted and the city staff held a memorial ceremony near the site of Pham's death that, while originally scheduled to be an employee-only affair, was later opened to the public. Pham's family attended this event, which turned out to be nearly perfect under the circumstances. Hatch and Decker offered words of encouragement. Several friends and co-workers told the nearly 300 people standing in the parking lot of Pham's skills and the affection they all felt for him.

As tragic as those few days were, things only got worse during the week when Monahan, apparently raw from the criticism he received for his callousness on St. Patrick's Day, told the Daily Pilot that plans were in the works to reduce the Police Department staff from 146 to 125 members — a punch to the gut of an already-reeling staff.

He was quoted as stating that, "there are no longer any sacred cows."

It will be very interesting to see how they try to put a positive spin on this news, because there is clear evidence that crime rates are directly related to the number of police on the job. This reduction, coupled with the abandonment of the AirBorne Law Enforcement, or ABLE, helicopter program, means that Costa Mesa will be a more dangerous place.

Since January, the four-man council majority has rapidly disassembled what is arguably the finest city staff in the county under the guise of "pension reform." Righeimer campaigned with pension reform as his mantra — a scheme laid out for him by his cronies in the Orange County Republican Party. Because the contracts with the employee bargaining units don't expire for a few years, the only way he can quickly "effect change" is to get rid of the employees who are eligible for pensions, which he's doing at light speed.

He and Monahan, as a sub-committee of the council, identified 18 units they felt could be "outsourced" — done more cheaply by outside contractors. They had their minds made up by the time they made the proposal to the full council, despite the fact that some of the units in question — graffiti removal and street sweeping, for example — had very recently been studied and determined to be more cost effective than outsourcing. That information was disregarded and those units are on the list.

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Run CM like a business?

It is clear to many observers that this is purely a political move on the part of Righeimer and his close associates on the council, including the non-elected appointee, Mensinger. Their stated goal is to run the city like a business, disregarding the legal safeguards that are in place to prevent the kind of capricious and reckless decision-making that we're seeing now. They are proceeding with their plans at a rapid, reckless pace so they can accomplish their goals before the general public catches on — not dissimilar to what happened in the city of Bell.

Righeimer has stated many times that his election constituted a "mandate from the people," brushing aside the packed Council Chambers recently as "only a couple hundred people, most of which are employees." It appears that he actually thinks that because there are not hordes of residents outside the chambers with burning torches and pitchforks everyone in our city agrees with him.

Only a huge public outcry will stop this new council from destroying our city by turning it into a place where service to the residents, clean, safe streets and parks and public safety take a back seat to the personal political future of a couple party operatives intent on jamming their dogma down our throats.

It's time for the silent majority in our city to get off their couches and express their concerns in no uncertain terms by writing, e-mailing and/or calling City Hall to complain about the damage being done. It's time to stop Righeimer before he leaves Costa Mesa in ashes as he moves on up to the next rung in the political ladder.

Costa Mesa resident GEOFF WEST publishes A Bubbling Cauldron, a blog on local issues.

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