Harlan: Costa Mesa's 'professional city family' deserves more respect

I've been wondering for some time why the Costa Mesa council union bears so much animosity toward our city's organized labor.

The rhetoric coming from the majority on the dais for the past 20 months has been consistently strident, adversarial and divisive.

Their prevailing attitude is that our public employees are simply taking advantage of a system that is designed to benefit only themselves. As Councilman Steve Mensinger surmised in his recent commentary (Re. "Unions are partly to blame for the city's woes, not the workers," Sept. 5), they "have an unending thirst for unsustainable compensation."

But this statement is often tempered with the refrain that the employees are not to blame ("they are excellent public servants"); it's just their associations that are gaming the system for their own aggrandizement.

Let's first disabuse ourselves of the myth that the city's employees and their associations are distinct and different things. The associations and their leadership are composed of city employees, not some separately hired staff. They're one in the same.

It's insincere for the council union to say that we have wonderful employees, but their associations are to blame. That's just like stating all of the councilmen are great guys, but the council is headstrong, hasty and careless.

So why does the council union have so much contempt for our city family?

It boils down to one word: fairness. The underlying subtext of all of the partisan rhetoric is that it's not fair that the city's public employees make a decent wage and enjoy certain benefits during the current economic circumstances.

If you're a private sector employee today, it's natural to be somewhat envious of public employees.

The litany of perceived inequities is endless: Why do they get vacation days that carry over to the next year, and I'm limited to 10 use-it-or-lose-it days? Why do they get better medical benefits and more paid holidays? Why do they get pensions paid primarily by their employers, when all I have is this lousy 401(k)? Why do they have job security while I'm wondering if we'll still be in business next month?

As someone who has worked in both the public and private sectors, I can tell you that the anticipated (and presumably better) benefits of working for a private business are not guaranteed. The risks of earning greater pay, receiving bigger bonuses and advancing quicker in a career are not always rewarded.

And that's the key difference between public and private — risk.

Should public-sector employees be vilified because they chose a career path with less risk and it appears their decision was a good one? Should they be demonized because, at this moment, they seem relatively more secure economically than their private-sector counterparts?

When our economy was bustling and those in the private sector were happy and enjoying the benefits of economic growth, our council seemed perfectly content to negotiate in good faith with our employee associations. In fact, Councilman (and current candidate) Gary Monahan voted in favor of these agreements in 2010, but now condemns them as unsustainable.

When our national economy turned south a few years ago, though, organized labor became a convenient target of those who were not faring as well, namely private businesses.

It's not surprising that Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and his council union are bewildered, disturbed and often offended by our government system. The private sector is their only point of reference, and therefore they view problem-solving only through this lens.

According to Righeimer, in a recent Daily Pilot article, our public employees do not operate in "the real world."

This perspective suggests an even more insidious belief: that public-sector employees are somehow less valuable than those in the private sector. If they had the skills and smarts, the thinking goes, obviously they would have chosen to work in the more lucrative "real world" of private enterprise.

That perspective is an affront to all employees. I, for one, am grateful that we have such a fine, professional city family in Costa Mesa.

While a private sector sensibility can be helpful in defining new and entrepreneurial approaches in local government, we need to start from a place of respect for our public employees.

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

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