‘Feet to the Fire’ Hosts Costa Mesa Candidates Debate

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As promised, the Costa Mesa Feet to the Fire forum Wednesday night delivered sizzling among City Council candidates over the toughest issues facing the city.

In many ways it was a sequel to last year’s event,  which was especially charged because months before the city had issued layoff notices to more than 200 city employees. The controversial notices were part of the council majority’s longstanding effort to transform city government largely through outsourcing.

Although the focus has shifted slightly from argument over outsourcing to a debate on the proposed city charter, it is still really all about privatizing government. The charter proposal, if passed by voters, would give the City Council outsourcing power that it doesn’t currently have.

Approval of the proposed charter is on the November ballot.

The politicians on the panel, which was organized by Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia, included Councilman Steve Mensinger, former Mayor Sandy Genis, Councilman Gary Monahan and council candidates Colin McCarthy, Harold Weitzberg and John Stephens.

The journalists posing questions included Daily Pilot editor John Canalis, Register columnist Frank Mickadeit, and Newport Beach Independent editor Roger Bloom and columnist Jack Wu.

The questioning followed well-established lines, with specific questions regarding how quickly the council majority pushed the charter proposal  through and how the candidates would tone down the rancor of the outsourcing debate

On outsourcing, Weitzberg and Genis — opponents of the council majority and backed by the grassroots group Costa Mesans for Responsible Government — dug into the pitfalls of the approach. Weitzberg said he doesn’t want to see private companies receive services contracts and seize city equipment, only to come back and ask for more money when the city is stuck in the contracts.

Genis said the city needs to study the issue more closely. “Before you jump off the high board, you need to make sure there’s water in the pool,” she said.

Monahan said the city is outsourcing only where it makes sense. For example, contracting for jail services saves $700,000 annually, he said. Outsourcing park maintenance and payroll would save millions, according to Monahan.

Mensinger employed the rhetoric common to the council majority’s side of the debate. In order to tackle a $9-million deficit, Mensinger said, outsourcing was one of the only options, because labor contracts had been agreed to before he was elected.

“I’m one of the few people actually that’s sitting up here that’s actually run a business and outsourced a company,” Mensinger said. “Outsourcing can work, you just have to have a good agreement.”

Stephens pointed out that the outsourcing effort so far has racked up legal fees — the number cited by some is $1 million — to pay for the legal fight, partly negating the financial gain that outsourcing is supposed to net.

Bloom, comparing Newport Beach’s friendlier approach toward its unions, asked whether the council majority could have negotiated more amicably with the labor groups rather than running with the outsourcing plan too fast and abrasively.

“Do you think you guys made a mistake by being so bull-in-the-china-shop?” Bloom asked.

Mensinger said Newport Beach has a wealthier property tax base, so the level of urgency in fixing the budget doesn’t compare to Costa Mesa’s. And he asserted that labor groups were the ones playing politics.

“Our councils in the past have been put into their seats by labor unions. They looked at us as outsiders,” Mensinger said. “The unions want to play this thing out. They’re using the clock and the calendar so they can get their candidates in.”

Venezia pointed out that Mensinger is called a “bully” for the way the public is treated at council meetings and thus opened a debate over the appropriate level of intensity for a public discourse that has been fraught with accusations of aggression, vandalism and even a false police call.

Mensinger said that “there’s a lot of passion on both sides” and that, at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds, he has a “hard time not appearing larger than someone else.” He also said that the accusations of bullying usually come from people who “don’t like your decision.”

“Don’t you take some responsibility in bringing down the level of acrimony that’s happening in this city?” Venezia replied. “What steps are you taking to bring down this level?”

Mensinger said that he meets with people to discuss the issues. But others, he said, “are very partisan, and they just don’t get it.”

Regarding the charter, proponents argued that it would take local control back from Sacramento and allow the city to achieve “millions and millions of dollars in cost savings” by, for example, not having to pay union wages.

“We’re sick and tired of Sacramento telling us how to run our city and then taking all our money,” said McCarthy, who is a supporter of the council majority.

Opponents of the charter said that it didn’t contain basic protections, like having public bidding on public contracts and requiring an independent audit of city finances.

The panel also tackled medical marijuana and engaging the city’s Latino population. Most of the panelists agreed that medical marijuana needed to be regulated, though they disagreed over whether it should be taxed.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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