First in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battle.
Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece peers down through a pair of spectacles at a pile of notes spread out on the coffee table.
"Because we have South Coast Plaza, we are in a very unique situation from other cities, like Stockton," she says, mentioning the bankrupt Northern California town. "We have this revenue source that brings in about $40 million — our sales tax revenue is about $40 million a year — and the rest is property tax...."
She continues, listing off budgeting figures and statistics. It's a quiet late afternoon a couple of weeks before election day, and Leece is talking politics from a comfy armchair in her living room on Costa Mesa's Westside. A "No on Measure V" sign leans against a wall by the front door. Leece's dog, Tucker, noses around on the sun-dappled carpet nearby.
Leece speaks passionately, but she seems relaxed. Her name wasn't on the ballot, after all. Still, there may have been no one in Costa Mesa more affected by Tuesday's elections. Leece has spent the better part of two years on the lonely side of multiple 4-1 council votes and was hopeful voters in this election would improve that ratio.
Since Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer's election in 2010 created a strong, unified majority bent on employee pension reforms, Leece has been a lone dissenting voice on some of the council's most controversial decisions. She was the only one to vote against laying off nearly half the city's workforce in March 2011. More recently, she was the only sitting council member to speak out against the controversial charter proposed in Measure V, which failed Tuesday, saying it was hastily written without proper public input.
"It's hard," she says, "I'm not going to say that it's easy. But I'm a committed person. I signed up for this."
Her next two years — Leece's last on the term-limited council — may not be much easier.
Leece threw her support behind the so-called "Top 3" slate, made up of former Mayor Sandy Genis, attorney John Stephens and businessman Harold Weitzberg, which ran in opposition to the "3Ms" slate, composed of current Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan, and Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy. Genis was elected, earning the most votes out of the eight candidates, and Mensinger and Monahan appear to have kept their seats, though as of Saturday Stephens remained within 190 votes of Monahan for the third open seat.
This means Leece, an ally of Genis, likely will remain on the losing end of a 3-2 council split. But Leece, both before and after the election, said she'll keep doing what she's been doing.
School board years
Leece's career, from her election to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board in 1994 to her time on the City Council dais, which began in 2006, has seen its share of controversy.
"I was very conservative on the school board. You could dredge up stories," she says. "I didn't like certain books; I didn't like certain textbooks. I was for abstinence, American history and I was for the balanced approach to intelligent design and evolution. In other words, 'Let's just be fair and get everything out there.' "
In 2006, Leece aligned herself with former Costa Mesa mayor and current Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) on controversial anti-illegal-immigrant policies that drew national media attention.
"We weren't just going to pull over people who didn't look like they were from America, you know," she says. "But if they were doing a crime, then they might get arrested and go with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."
Today, 64-year-old Leece hasn't backed off those views, but those who've known her over the years say her priorities seem to have shifted.
"When I was on the City Council, she was just beginning to get involved in Costa Mesa issues," says Mary Hornbuckle, who sat at the dais from 1984 to 1996. "She's matured a little bit and changed somewhat. Her interest in the community has not changed at all … she's broadened the focus of her interest."
Part of that, says school board Trustee Katrina Foley, may stem from Leece's work outside the council as a substitute teacher at Juvenile Hall.
"She does amazing work, and I think she's changed a lot because of this work," Foley says. "I think it's really changed her worldview about the needs of children and families. She's completely dedicated to young people."
Foley and Leece served on the council together from 2006 to 2010 and remain friends. She says Leece saw past ideological differences to extend a helping hand to Foley in a time of need.
"We were politically apart from the time that I first met her," says Foley, who was active in the "Top 3" slate's campaigns. "But after Wendy got elected, and I was already on the council, one thing that changed — and this gets to the core of who Wendy Leece is — I was home for about five weeks [for medical issues] and Wendy was the most caring and concerned council member.... That just changed our relationship going forward because it became about people, not politics."
Leece, for her part, says she sees education as a tool for bettering the community.
"When kids have accountability, they don't become gang-bangers," she says. "Just because they're in Juvenile Hall doesn't mean we should forget them."
It's tough work, she says, "but I enjoy it, and I come back here, and there's more challenges.... My kids are all grown so I have that free time."
After-school programs, Leece says, are important. So is her work with the city's Homeless Task Force, whose work, she says, has been able to move forward with council cooperation.
"Those changes are being implemented as we speak," she says of the strategies recommended to the council.
Leece is a lifelong Republican but says that "community-based solutions, and not reckless political posturing to get headlines," are what's necessary at a local, nonpartisan level.
"What's happened in Costa Mesa is that an ideology or a mindset of how things should be in a city has come in to be imposed on Costa Mesa, and that's primarily a Republican mindset or ideology," she says. "Whereas I'm at a grass-roots level, working with Republicans [for whom] that imposition of an ideology in such a strict, quick manner is offensive."
That's not how Righeimer, who's led the council majority, sees it.
"I've known Wendy for over 20 years," he says, before referring to a recently approved transparency law. "I agree with her on some things.... We agreed on the COIN [Civic Openness in Negotiations] ordinance."
The council majority has also been criticized by some for not treating Leece with a professional level of respect in discussions, dismissing her contributions, but Righeimer simply sees political disagreement, not a lack of regard.
"You constantly hear we don't give the public respect or the council respect," he says. "I have never disrespected anyone on the council."
Righeimer said in a preelection interview that the perceived tension stems from disagreements over the direction of financial reforms.
"I guarantee you if a different council was in there, there would be no tension, there would be no problems," but the city's financial situation would go unaddressed, he says. "We're going to make sure we're being honest with the taxpayers' money."
Mensinger sees Leece as someone whose politics have changed — but not for the better.
"I supported Wendy in her early years. I even contributed to her campaigns," he writes in an email. "It would be no surprise to many that I am critical of some of her decisions that have contributed to the crisis."
Roeder, Mansoor reflect
The widowed mother of five and grandmother of three says she just tries to do right by Costa Mesa — no matter what side of political divides that lands her on.
"I do my homework, and I just really … I vote my conscience, after I assess the information," she says. "I've always tried to be prepared for the meetings, and I take my duty very seriously to serve the citizens of Costa Mesa."
That's a trait the 40-year Westside resident's supporters and critics alike recognize.
"She places a high priority on public engagement and the public process," said former Costa Mesa City Manager Allan Roeder, who retired in March 2011. "She was never abrasive or anything of that nature. She is one of those who seeks input from a very broad base — not simply me as a city manager, but the business community — input from a variety of sources."
Onetime political ally Mansoor says, "Wendy has a good heart, but she's wrong on some of the current issues." He echoed Righeimer and Mensinger in saying that Leece's approach to pension reform is inadequate.
Hornbuckle, who has supported Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, a residents' group opposed to Righeimer's policies, says Leece has "done the diligent work" and has "hung in there and continued to persevere."
"I think it's valuable to have dissenting opinions, because people talk and work things out," she says. "The past couple years, Wendy has just been shut out, and her voice has been totally ignored."
Enter Sandy Genis
With Genis taking the most votes, though, Leece says things may change on the council. Genis has a "keen analytical mind" and valued connections in the community.
"What I can truly say is the people of Costa Mesa have spoken," Leece says. "They want their voices to be heard, and they haven't been heard for years."
Genis says she hopes that she and Leece will be able to make for more productive discussion, if not change the outcome of votes.
"This is the difference I've seen on the council," Genis said during an informal tour Wednesday of City Hall. "On one issue we'd be arguing vehemently, and the next issue we could agree on. Now, [the council majority] says this is our view and we always think it together.
"We hope to work collaboratively with the men on the council."
Regardless of the way things go in Council Chambers, come Genis' December inauguration, Leece says she hopes to leave a legacy of transparency on the council with her town hall meetings, and an improved approach to working with the homeless that includes a broad range of solutions.
"You know, I just really love the city," she says, sinking into her armchair, surrounded by embroidered throw pillows and photos of her family. "And it breaks my heart to see the division and the vitriol and just the nastiness. Because it didn't used to be that way. We were a nice, clean, safe city. You know, we just kind of hum along. Did we have some challenges? Yes. But we work together, we listen to residents. We don't just think we have all the answers."