Harlan: Council meeting surprises with two good decisions

As someone who watches the Costa Mesa City Council meetings regularly, I often look for those moments where a good idea takes root, follows a natural course of development and hopefully grows to fruition. On Tuesday, much to my delight, I caught a glimpse of sensible decision-making.

Twice, in fact.

Kudos, to the council.

First, in a rare instance of accord, the council voted unanimously to discontinue studying the privatization of the TeWinkle Park Athletic Complex. There has been no demonstrated demand and no community support for this project, which has flown under the radar for over a year.

It was refreshing to see common sense prevail on the dais.

Led by Mayor Pro Tem Righeimer, the discussion centered on what he perceived as the project's potential fatal flaws — the school district's policy prohibiting alcohol sales near schools and accommodating additional parking.

Because it was unlikely these issues could be resolved, he expressed reluctance to spend any more money on additional site studies. The rest of his council union fell in line quickly, with Councilman Gary Monahan, the original driver of the project, concluding that the process was "an incredible learning experience."

Second, the council considered proceeding with another proposal, this one to outsource the city's park landscaping and maintenance services. Righeimer hailed the process to select the landscaping and maintenance vendor as exactly how this should be done, "a perfect example of a contract."

And he's right.

Staff assessed the city's needs and current provision of services, developed a request for proposals (RFP), solicited and evaluated bids, conducted due diligence about the prospective vendors and issued a recommendation to council. And in keeping with the straightforward process, the council questioned staff, offered comments and made its determination to select a contractor.

Both of these decisions, on their face, appeared to be well reasoned, thoughtful and intended to benefit the community as a whole. And in most cities, this is how the decision-making process goes — efficiently and reasonably, with little, if any, drama or fanfare.

But, as we know, Costa Mesa is not like most California cities. Without the community's assent, we have been thrust into the national spotlight as the battleground for pension reform, the petri dish for questionable experiments in governance, and as a community polarized by ideologically driven politicians.

Unfortunately, this is not an image that serves us well.

And that is precisely the problem with the council's aforementioned decisions. We cannot divorce what appears to be a "good" final decision from its larger context.

For example, in the TeWinkle Park privatization proposal, the city (at Monahan's direction) expended a significant amount of time, money and resources before addressing even the most basic questions about property ownership, school district policies and community need.

Had this been a truly collaborative effort, the council union would have conducted its due diligence and reached out first to the school district and the federal government (the property grantor) to understand their concerns and constraints. Then, the city would have realized early that the proposal was really a first-inning strikeout.

Similarly, the park landscape and maintenance contract is inextricably linked to the city's two most important issues: the lawsuit over the council union's poorly executed outsourcing plan and their proposed charter scheme. This contract would have likely been executed today had the council union taken the time to follow its policies and procedures more than a year ago.

But now, according to Righeimer, the only way we can realize the savings from outsourcing these particular services soon is if the charter passes.

In other words, the only way to implement this "good" decision is for the community to make a bad one. I, for one, do not want to be held hostage by this option.

While the council union's recent decisions may seem like reasonable ones in isolation, they are tied to a political backdrop cultivated at a great cost to our community. We continue to pay — in exorbitant legal fees, community division and a tarnished reputation — for their hasty and wasteful choices.

As we saw Tuesday night, the council union is certainly capable of making good decisions. But it seems like they are compelled to make a series of poor ones before reluctantly taking the right course of action, often as a last resort. There's no shame in making a good decision — and doing the right thing — early.

At some point we have to recognize that, ultimately, process and context matter.

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

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