“Rescind the pink slips.”
That was the refrain, again and again at Tuesday’s Costa Mesa City Council meeting — the first open forum for residents and public workers to voice their feelings since the city issued layoff notices to 213 employees on March 17.
For over three hours, more than 50 speakers slammed council members, accusing them of “cooking the books” in the face of a financial crisis to pursue and ideological agenda.
The crowd — numbering in the hundreds — was so large that many had to stand outside the chambers and watch meeting on a television. Inside, two uniformed police officers stood watch over the dais, while seven others lined the back wall.
The suicide of Huy Pham, the city maintenance worker who jumped from the top of the City Hall building the day the layoff notices were issues, weighed heavily on the proceedings.
At the start of the meeting, Mayor Gary Monahan apologized to the public for his actions — and inaction — that day. Monahan, who owns an Irish pub in the city, was criticized for staying at his bar rather than immediately coming to City Hall after hearing of Pham’s suicide.
“We’ve had a couple of tragic weeks….my actions have added to that and I want to apologize for my shortcomings as mayor,” Monahan said. “I promise to do better.”
Motioning to the packed room, Monahan added: “I’m sure some people are going to tell me exactly what they think of me.”
He was correct in that assumption.
“When I saw you on the TV, on the news, celebrating …it made me sick to my stomach,” said resident Susan Meyer. “You did not meet the needs of our city, you chose to party. Gary, because you have so much experience. I ask you to fire yourself. You are not fit to be our mayor. Do the right thing, step down now.”
Yet the most poignant words of the evening came from 14-year-old city resident Xylia Willow, who chose not to single anyone out.
“Maybe we should think about the human beings behind the name, city worker,” Willow said from the speaker’s podium to wild cheers from the audience.
At one point, as Councilman Steven Mensinger noted the stress of the death on him, Councilman Jim Righeimer looked as if he was forcing back tears.
While some residents did show up to support council members, their voices were largely lost in a sea of criticism.
“There’s a lot of families that aren’t here tonight,” said Costa Mesa resident Jim Fitzpatrick, who said that city services — like streets and storm drains — have not been maintained adequately in recent years.
“It’s a math problem. It’s not an emotional problem.”
Still, the main theme of the night centered on numerous media reports that have questioned the veracity of the budget numbers being utilized by city officials to back up their outsourcing plan.
The Costa Mesa Employees Association told council members publicly that they want to conduct a full financial audit and they’re willing to pay for it.
Two council members — Righeimer and Eric Bever — agreed that the audit should be conducted and thanked the labor group publicly for offering to pay for it.
However, members of the four-member majority that approved the outsourcing plan gave no indications that they were backtracking on the plan.
Righeimer told the gathered workers that their union representatives had done such a great job of negotiating pay and benefits that they had put them out of a job.
He stressed that the entire process of outsourcing would be done in a transparent manner. “This is going to be a difficult time,” he said. “We are going to be fully transparent. I really, really want you to understand that.”
Yet Righeimer reiterated that the layoff notices and outsourcing “will continue to go forward. It’s something the public is asking us to do.”
Bever told the crowd that he welcomed a full audit because even he was suspect of city finances, and he supports the outsourcing plan. “We are done. Our reserves are gone,” he said, adding fuel to speculation that council members’ don’t understand their own budget. City documents show that the fund balance available now stands at $40 million.
Bever took issue with criticism of the outsourcing plan, noting that the city had already contracted out a series of services — like the city golf course, water, trash and landscaping — without issue.
He also took direct aim at workers saying, “the attitudes I’m getting is not helping. It’s not making me feel very compassionate toward you.”
Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the lone dissenting vote on the outsourcing plan, criticized her colleagues for moving so quickly.
“We had not done our homework,” she said. “We had not analyzed the downside. We have people in Costa Mesa who don’t understand what were’ doing.”
She focused on Righeimer.
“I don’t’ believe it’s necessary to dismantle our city services for pension reform. Pension reform is great. We need to do it. But we need to do it in a reasonable, fair manner.”
Mensinger, meanwhile, targeted Allan Roeder, the city’s popular former city manager. Roeder, Mensinger said, hid the lack of ongoing maintenance for streets and stormwater drains.
“Service organizations have to be managed. We haven’t done that,” he said.
The last word on the night came from Monahan, who thanked the crowd and told them: “Keep questioning us. Keep pushing us.”