Harlan: What's the harm in exaggeration?

Editor's note: Jeffrey Harlan, an urban planner who lives in Costa Mesa, has agreed to write a Sunday column for the Daily Pilot. This is his first.


We all recognize, and to some extent accept, that politicians exaggerate. During the campaign season, especially, we are bombarded with hyperbolic claims.

But when the dust has settled after an election, the victors have a new obligation to their constituents, and a higher bar is set for dealing with the real facts. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said it best: "We campaign in poetry, and we govern in prose."

Although I'd hardly call it poetry, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer recently misstated facts about Costa Mesa on TV, then cloaked them as a harmless exaggeration.

While on CNBC's "Squawk Box" the morning of May 1, he explained to the interviewer that "we have arguably the No.1 sales tax generating, you know, shopping area, South Coast Plaza, on the planet, and we can't slurry seal our streets."

Anyone who has driven in Righeimer's neighborhood of Mesa Verde lately would know that the city repaved more than 100 streets last fall to the tune of $3 million. Near my Eastside neighborhood, the city is about to undertake a $6.3-million street rehabilitation project paid by gas tax and Measure M revenue.

But let's not allow actual, on-the-ground facts to get in the way of making an ideologically driven point. The councilman's point, of course, is that Costa Mesa is so financially strapped because the labor unions have contracts that put a stranglehold on our municipal budget.

Referring to our public safety personnel and their exorbitant pensions, which presumably exacerbate the problem, he offered this fine sound bite: "We don't want to kick them to the alley, but we don't want to kick them to the beach. They can't go to the beach."

Poetry indeed.

So how does this little misstatement and campaign rhetoric really harm Costa Mesans? First of all, when I turn on the TV and see my local representative on a national program, I would hope that he'd have his facts straight. Surely few, if any, of the people who actually watched the program know the details of Costa Mesa's fiscal situation.

But to us at home, the facts matter. Period.

I'm more troubled that our council majority, with Righeimer as its spokesman, is sending potential investors exactly the wrong message about Costa Mesa. Publicly (and flippantly) disparaging our community is not a sound economic development strategy.

And with the councilman set to court new development at the upcoming International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, how can he tell a prospective business, in good conscience, that Costa Mesa is worthy of its investment now?

According to Righeimer, we can't take care of our infrastructure, our employees are greedily suckling at the public teet, and the council is without the tools to govern effectively (hence, the need for a charter).

Any new business looking to locate in Costa Mesa will conduct its due diligence. It will examine the supply of local labor and assess whether the market has room for its operations and expected growth.

Importantly, it will also want to know if Costa Mesa offers stability. Based on the council majority's actions over the past 17 months, and the council member's recent comments, would any reasonable business risk investing in Costa Mesa now?

If this council is going to make a concerted effort to improve our local economy, it can't send mixed signals. The message to potential businesses that could invest here has to be a positive and welcoming one — there's plenty in Costa Mesa to boast about. It's time for our councilmen to start governing for the community and stop campaigning for other audiences.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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