It's Gotten Costa Messy In Costa Mesa

Scenes from the civic dissolution of America's latest public-employee battleground

It's Gotten Costa Messy In Costa Mesa

*This story was altered on Sept. 2, and Sept. 6, 2011.

A light breeze blows across the dark skies outside the Costa Mesa council chambers. Inside, a storm is brewing. After hours and days and weeks and months of speculation and discussion, the time for talk is over. Decisions are being made about the future of the city, and there is concern that the worst is yet to come.

The chambers are packed: all the seats are filled, with an overflow crowd outside the double-door entry, viewing the proceedings on a 32-inch television. In a row toward the rear of the chambers, four men wearing bright-orange shirts sit side-by-side, arms crossed, gazes fixed on the five-person council sitting behind the dais at the front of the room, beneath the Costa Mesa crest and the motto "In God We Trust." It's March 1, and on this night, the Lord can't help anyone.

The national media isn't here because no one has yet leapt from City Hall, the mayor hasn't appeared on news stations dressed as a leprechaun, the city hasn't yet hired a former award-winning reporter as its high-priced spokesman, and a police chief hasn't resigned behind a letter filled with scathing accusations.

"I hope I'm premature in expressing my sadness over what appears to be the coming demise of the city of Costa Mesa as we've come to know and love it," Perry Valantine says, one of more than 30 people who will blast the council tonight. Valantine retired more than six years ago after years of serving in the Development Services Department. "It just seems that this council, as laudable as your goals may be to correct the budget deficits and other financial problems in this city, is moving way too fast. . . . In the 20 elections that I've seen over 40 years, there have been a lot of changes in this city, but none nearly as drastic and nearly as fast as what this council is trying to do in the not-quite three months since it's been sitting behind the dais."

The city is at a crossroads. Four of the five council members maintain Costa Mesa is facing a financial crisis so severe it's on the brink of insolvency. In order to close the remaining $1.4 million budget shortfall, the council wants to outsource 18 municipal divisions, which account for 213 jobs—more than 40 percent of the city's workforce.

This isn't a new position—indeed, the City Council faced a financial problem last year, one of thousands of municipalities nationwide struggling during this recession. Representatives from the Costa Mesa City Employees Association, a charter member of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), presented more than 100 suggestions in hopes of assisting in the matter, but the union received a "blanket no," according to Billy Folsom, a city mechanic who was involved in those proceedings. The union asked the council what it needed and received a list of suggestions. The employees agreed to every request, which included furlough days, a reduced retirement formula and increased contributions to their pensions.

"We will always work with the city; we always have," Folsom says to the council. "We've always come to solutions together; we've never done things backwards—until this point. We just had a study completed 10 days ago on graffiti removal that shows we do it much cheaper than anyplace around, but they're on that list. We've had four studies in just the past couple of years on the street sweepers—one just completed, came back we did it cheaper; they're on the list. So it makes some of us feel like maybe it isn't a dollars-and cents-thing, that maybe it's a little bit of ideology creeping in here. And as a city family, yes, we're a little depressed, we're a little taken aback, and we do get tired of seeing ourselves demonized as union hacks or some kind of fat cat. It's not true."

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer listens intently to each comment, showing little reaction, other than an occasional head twitch. When it's his turn to speak, he takes a second to adjust his red-and-silver-striped tie, then presents his thoughts in a composed manner.

"There's a clock, and there's a calendar, and we will run out of money in this city—you can count on it," says Righeimer, maintaining his matter-of-fact approach. "If we're going the way we're going, we're going to run out."

Wendy Leece, the lone female at the dais, doesn't agree. The second-term council member lends her support to the employees and situates herself as the union's champion.

"[Previous councils] have not made bad decisions—we kept the ship going, and we're still weathering the storm—but we don't need to take drastic means and issue layoff notices to affect the morale of our employees," she tells the audience, which has thinned significantly now that the meeting is five and a half hours old. "I am tired of the demonization of our employees. . . . I don't know why more meetings are not held with staff to find solutions rather than to go to this. It's like the decision has already been made. So I will not support this."

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