City Life: A mallet won't work on city budget now

Costa Mesa's fiscal challenge is not a mole that just popped up out of the ground this year — or even last year.

The problem developed over the last 10 or so years, during a time when the City Council could make no mistakes. Unlike Whac-a-Mole, it will take more than one hit to make the problem disappear.

During those mistake-free days we were all shopping 'til we dropped at South Coast Plaza, buying cars on Harbor Boulevard and frequenting the city's many excellent restaurants. There was money for anything — even $500,000 for a worthless bridge over Placentia Avenue at Fairview Park.

Life was good. But that life was an illusion.

The reality is that just about anyone can govern well and be a hero when there is a lot of money to spend. Under the leadership of former Mayor Allan Mansoor, whose adult life has consisted almost entirely of public sector jobs, the city negotiated the union contracts that are now causing some of the money woes facing the city today. (In fairness, it should be noted that Mansoor voted against the Placentia Avenue bridge.)

It is a mistake, though, to blame Mansoor alone, for it took a majority of council votes to approve any agreement. It is also a mistake to blame the union representatives for being effective negotiators.

Union leadership succeeded in preserving jobs and improving conditions for its members, which is certainly its most important function. How the union goes about achieving its results is important too and it would be another mistake for either side in this battle to claim clean hands.

For its part, the current council majority may have been able to reduce the scope of this war and preempt questionable union tactics through better communication. The council should have laid out its long-term plan early on with city staff through a series of face-to-face meetings with each department.

At those meetings, council members should have told workers of their value, sincerely, and should have put out a call for viable ideas from the rank-and-file to help resolve the current challenges. This last hindsight recommendation is one born of experience.

In one of my former lines of work, I discovered that the best ideas for efficiency and revenue enhancement came not from the highly paid bigwigs but from the folks who actually have to sell the product or provide the service.

The "thank you" to the staff is not a small point. Reputable studies have shown that what the average worker wants more than increased pay is the knowledge that the work they do is appreciated.

More money is, in fact, No. 4 on the list of demands. The other two ahead of money are the knowledge that their work is making a difference and contributing to a greater good, followed by more time off.

This is not theory; it is basic, proven people management that most of the council should have been aware of and exercised. If you need proof, talk to city workers. The lowest paid workers are not complaining about money; they're upset about their treatment.

This much we know. Either the City Council will be able to lay off en masse and outsource where it sees fit, or the unions will have preserved the status quo for their members.

The mistake both sides are making is the personal tone of both campaigns. The battle should be over long-term policy and principle, regardless of which side one takes, for one day, each of the current council members will have moved on. One day, the union leadership will change.

In the meantime, both sides need leadership that can look beyond today, beyond the pettiness we are witnessing and resolve the issues, at least for now, with the goal of preventing this offensive show from appearing before our children in another 10 years.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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