Venezia: Nothing adds up in 60th debacle

Every now and then there's a story that gets under my skin because the more answers surface, the more things just don't add up for me.

Take Costa Mesa's 60th anniversary debacle.

I wasn't surprised that the festival went over budget, quite frankly, because most of these types of events do.

But what bothers me is what made city employees turn a blind eye to policies and procedures during the planning stages of the event, as indicated in the initial investigation done by outside auditors and the Costa Mesa Police Department.

Does this speak to a disturbing trend within City Hall, and is the 60th event just the tip of the iceberg?

When the investigation results came out, I wrote a column questioning this, especially since Costa Mesa is supposedly being run like a business.

Did underlings in the Finance Department raise questions early on in the planning process after being asked to bypass policies and procedures?

Did those concerns reach the ears of city CEO Tom Hatch and Assistant CEO Rick Francis?

I called them both last week about this. They said no one raised these concerns to them during the planning stages of the event.

Hatch said he found out about the issues from staffers about a month after the event.

He told me he knew there would be about $30,000 to $40,000 in overages since he'd authorized staff to waive the $4,500-per-booth fee for nonprofits, thus some revenue would be lost.

He also explained that the city bought more insurance than planned, about $16,000. But he wasn't aware that the overages would be as high as they were — more than $200,000 than budgeted — and that employees didn't follow policies and procedures.

I mentioned one excuse I wasn't buying — employees weren't trained properly in these policies.

I found a document on the city's website from the Purchasing Department, "How to do business with the city of Costa Mesa."

It seemed well written, and instructions were clear.

But even if employees weren't familiar with what to do, are we to believe they weren't smart enough to download what I did?

Hatch feels the document needs revamping, and a committee has been tasked with doing just that.

"It was a good procedure," he said. "The challenge was we didn't follow it and that led to the investigation. It makes sense to look at those procedures; they can always be approved upon."

Hatch hopes key reforms will "re-empower the Finance Department."

I don't know about that. Seems to me one of the problems here is that the Finance Department had too much power.

But what about the culture of city employees in general?

It's been my experience when dealing with employees in cities that they're all about following the rules, sometimes to the point of obnoxiousness, and they are more than happy to bury you in red tape.

By nature these aren't the type of people who color outside the lines.

So why did they here?

There are only three scenarios I see, and I shared my thoughts with Hatch and Francis:

The Finance Department is full of rogue employees, higher-ups told them to disregard procedures and policies or, even worse, sheer stupidity ran rampant.

Which is it?

Neither had any comment.

Regardless, I don't see rewriting procedures as being enough. It's time for a major housecleaning.

Hatch wouldn't comment on whether anyone will be fired, since Francis is still conducting his internal investigation. Hatch will be handling the appeals process.

Francis said his investigation deals with administrative issues, while the CMPD investigation focused on if any laws were broken. The results of the police investigation were turned over the district attorney's office for review.

Of course the wild card here is Costa Mesa Public Affairs Manager Dan Joyce, who headed up the 60th efforts.

Since August he's been on paid administrative leave, so he legally can't talk about his situation, I'm told.

My guess is Joyce will be the city's sacrificial lamb.

But if he's fired, will he go quietly?

If terminated, he's free to tell his side of the story.

Would it jibe with what we've been told already?

City management may have to weigh its next move carefully on this political chessboard, since I suspect there's enough blame to go around if Joyce gets chatty.

Of course they could offer him a nice severance package and have him resign and sign a non-disclosure agreement.

If that happens, we'll probably never know the whole messy truth.

BARBARA VENEZIA, whose column appears Fridays, lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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