In every city the built environment can be read as a narrative.
Spaces, places and objects dotting the physical landscape tell stories that may evolve over time, but constantly reflect a community’s core values. Iconic features — such as a central park, civic center, educational institution or gateway monument — symbolize through their design and presence what’s really important to the community.
In the political landscape, narratives are most often shaped and forged by the actions of our public officials. Casting votes, even for the most mundane item, has symbolic value.
This could not have been more evident than last Tuesday night at Costa Mesa’s City Hall, where a new City Council was seated after quite possibly the most contentious election in the city’s 60-year history. Along with a packed house of community members, I was hoping to see the truncated, 3-2 majority usher in a new era of kindness, mutual respect and collaboration.
Of course, this is what Councilman Jim Righeimer had been promising the past few weeks. A detente was declared, the outstanding employee layoff notices would be rescinded, and the council would work cooperatively with each other and the employee associations to improve our city’s fiscal health.
So how do you think this kindler and gentler council majority handled its first order of new business, appointing the mayor and mayor pro tem? Yes, it was déjà vu all over again.
To no one’s surprise, a re-elected Councilman Gary Monahan moved to have Righeimer officially take the helm. Despite a competing suggestion from top vote-getter Sandra Genis (a former mayor herself) to seat Councilman Wendy Leece at the center of the dais, the council majority fell in line for Mayor Jim Righeimer. This was expected.
With Council members Steve Mensinger and Leece subsequently nominated to serve as the mayor pro tem, the council majority had a choice to make. The councilmen could support former Mayor Pro Tem Leece as a symbol of reconciliation and change or continue with business as usual.
The mayor pro tem position, to be sure, is largely ceremonial, and mainly involves filling in for the mayor in his absence at public events and council meetings. There is no added power or glory in this role, and each council member’s vote still carries the same weight. Why, then, was this vote so important?
Because it was a symbol of missed opportunity. Filling this position is not based on who cares more about the community, or who is more qualified. And it’s not about seniority, or who deserves it more. Rather, it should be about fairness and creating goodwill.
Here was a prime opportunity for the council majority to write a new narrative and make good on their promise to help the community move forward together. It was the right time to set a new tone of conciliation and hope.
A simple gesture, costing virtually no political capital, would have gone a long way to repairing the rift created by the last two years of strife.
Mensinger could have just politely declined the nomination. Not only would that have demonstrated humility and grace, but also a commitment to actually listening to the Costa Mesa community. What would he have really lost if Leece served as the mayor pro tem?
We should not forget that a mere 155 votes, one-tenth of one percent of the citywide vote, could have completely changed the complexion of this council. As noted by several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting, the election plainly demonstrated that no one has a mandate, and no side was clearly victorious.
Some may argue that had there been a new majority, it would have definitely installed Leece and Genis in the mayoral positions. Of course, we’ll never know that.
The majority had the option to act magnanimously here, but chose otherwise.
So much for a holiday miracle in Costa Mesa.
JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.