Letters From The Editor: Show respect on anniversary of Pham's death

March 17, 2011, will always be remembered as the flash point in the battle of Costa Mesa.

That was the day a city employee ended his life. It was impossible to ignore the time — layoff notices were rolling out — and the place — City Hall — he committed suicide.

Huy Pham's public expression of private pain became a symbol of the ideological clash between city workers fighting to keep their jobs and a City Council trying to outsource them.

Like many people in town, I've tried to separate that moment from the story about efforts to reform Costa Mesa's government, but I just can't. That day, the vigil I attended that night, and the prayer circle around City Hall that followed will never leave me.

Because of what happened, Costa Mesa became a footnote in the national story about pension reform and the threats facing local governments. The rest of the country seemed to say, "Those crazy folks in Orange County are at it again," but those of us close to the story knew there was much more to it than outdated stereotypes.

The way I see it, this fight, like most, is about two things: money and ideology.

And those two things lead to two questions:

Is the city doing what it is doing — laying off workers, pushing for reforms — out of economic necessity?

Or is it pushing these reforms because the current leadership believes in a smaller, more efficient form of government that can spend less on employees and more on infrastructure and services?

So the fight really is about how two sets of ideologues would spend a finite amount of money. Most political fights come down to just that.

Four of the five City Council members will tell you that the only way for Costa Mesa to continue properly serving residents is to move away from what it terms the "unsustainable" cost of providing Cadillac employment packages in a Toyota era.

The employee associations and the dissenting voice on the council will tell you that the financial problems have been exaggerated by those trying to force their conservative, anti-union views on a city whose finances will recover with the economy.

Then there are a bunch of us — I include myself in this group — who are unsure of which side is right. We need more information. Or maybe we need less. There is just so much noise around this issue that it's hard to find that a-ha moment where everything makes sense.

I think we're getting closer to the answers. Our reporters who have tirelessly told this story almost daily since Day One have been gathering string for close to a year on the city's finances and are trying to unwind it so we can lay everything out for our readers.

You've seen much of their labor printed on these pages. But in the coming months we'll start sharing more of their findings. Just like everyone else, we want to get to the bottom of this and put out what we know to encourage public discourse that hopefully leads to meaningful answers.

There's plenty of time to hash these issues out, and I am glad the Daily Pilot has provided a forum in print and online for so many people in the community to voice the strongest of feelings.

But on this date, out of respect for the dead, maybe it's best to keep the fighting at bay. Take a moment to take a breath, pay respect to Pham, to his family, to his friends, and to a life lost too soon.

Leave the sticks and stones on the ground for another day.

JOHN CANALIS is the editor of Times Community News South. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and john.canalis@latimes.com.

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