Costa Mesa Officials Dodge Questions While Employee Remembered

Tragedy in Costa Mesa

A picture of Huy Pham, the 29-year-old maintenance worker who jumped to his death from the Costa Mesa City Hall building last year. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Saturday March 19, 2011 | Costa Mesa City Council members ended a highly charged news conference Friday about the suicide of city maintenance worker Huy Pham by refusing to answer reporters' questions and racing from the City Hall meeting room.

"Is there no one that will speak to the people of Costa Mesa?" yelled one television reporter. "This is a sham," added another.

It was a dramatic climax to a day in which city workers remembered their dead colleague and city officials tried to repair a damaged public image.

The 29-year-old Pham leaped to his death from the roof of City Hall Thursday, the same day he and 213 other city employees were issued layoff notices.

City Manager Tom Hatch, in a brief statement, told the news conference the city's focus now is on Pham's family and city employees. The city is setting up a fund with the Costa Mesa Community Foundation to assist Pham's family, Hatch said.

A remembrance ceremony, including a moment of silence, is also planned for Pham on Monday, Hatch said.

After issuing their statement at the news conference, Hatch, Mayor Gary Monahan and council members Jim Righeimer, Stephen Mesinger and Wendy Leece hurried from the room, refusing to answer questions.

Leece was the only member of council to vote against the outsourcing plan and the issuing of layoff notices.

Monahan in particular was hammered with questions about why he didn't immediately go to City Hall Thursday when he received news of Pham's death, but instead remained for hours at his bar, "Skosh Monahan's."

The details of Pham's death are still unclear. But a city worker said, as a maintenance worker, Pham had access to the roof of City Hall. The Costa Mesa Police Department is investigating and will release a report on the incident as soon as it's completed, Hatch said at the conference.

Caring and Talented

Grieving city workers Friday morning milled about outside City Hall, and a cascade of flowers lined the grass near the spot where Pham fell.

Some residents were also there to show support for the workers. One woman said to a group of somber employees, "I just want you to know that residents care about you guys."

Co-workers gathered in groups and reflected on Pham. He was described as "extremely talented" and overqualified for the maintenance work he was doing.

"The guy could make anything," said John Aguilar, one of Pham's supervisors. "He could build his own home if he wanted to," added Frank Barraza, a city maintenance worker who sat distraught near the array of flowers.

Co-workers said Pham was a straight "A" student and was on the dean's list at Orange Coast College. Pham was preparing to test for his contractor's license and was seen many times at lunch break studying outside of City Hall.

Co-workers also said Pham was working to take care of his mother, who was said to be ill. They described Pham as always focused on his job and his family.

"He had a perfect lunch every day -- I was always jealous. So I knew his mother loved him and took care of him," said Mike Moran, a retired city worker who trained and mentored Pham.

Pham was an avid hiker, co-workers said. Pham, who was nursing a broken ankle caused by a hiking accident, had planned to hike Mt. Everest next, co-workers said.

Manuel Villa, who said he was Pham's partner at work for the last two years, said Pham was "very caring" and was always willing to lend a hand. When Villa and his wife were expecting a baby, Pham helped Villa with electrical work around the house.

"He [Pham] would do anything for anybody," Villa said.

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