Costa Mesa Councilman Jim Righeimer, after being beaten in the courts and battered at the ballot box over an unprecedented plan to outsource Costa Mesa City Hall, is now calling for a truce with the labor unions he famously picked a fight with nearly two years ago.
Righeimer, who in early 2011 was championed by Republican leaders both here and nationally for issuing more than 200 layoff notices to city workers, will ask city CEO Tom Hatch to rescind the notices.
“I’m not making that contingent on anything,” Righeimer said of his intentions.
Labor leader Nick Berardino, who has been the Costa Mesa council majority's most high-profile opponent in the grinding battle, welcomed Righeimer's announcement, adding that he plans to publicly address the City Council tonight for the first time since early in 2011.
“We haven’t had any discussions,” said Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association. “Until we do, our attitude is that this is positive and constructive move and one which we look forward to. I want to renew a positive and collaborative working relationship and move forward.”
Berardino, in turn, has offered to collaborate with city leaders to find new ways to reform the culture at City Hall, to concentrate on better customer service and efficient workflows, and to support a private sector efficiency concept known as LEAN.
Righeimer said he’s receptive.
“Let's figure out a way to deliver better service at a better price. I’m all ears. I’m excited about it," Righeimer said. "If they want to be positive, then I’ll be positive.”
That’s a far cry from where this all started.
After being elected to the City Council in 2010, the ideologically conservative Righeimer, along with Councilmen Steve Mensinger, Gary Monahan and Eric Bever, moved quickly to catch what they saw as a wave of anti-labor sentiment that had hit its apex with the Tea Party's wins in the midterm elections.
As was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who attempted to end collective bargaining for public sector unions in his state, Righeimer and his colleagues were recognized throughout conservative circles for taking direct aim at public sector unions.
"The good news is that a team of conservatives on the City Council led by our endorsed candidate, Jim Righeimer, is fixing the problem in Costa Mesa," read an email circulated by local Republican Central Committee Chairman Scott Baugh to GOP activists across Orange County.
But the unions fought back and reacted with rage after Costa Mesa maintenance worker Huy Pham jumped to his death from the top of City Hall on March 17, 2011, the day the layoff notices were issued to employees.
"This is horrible. Do you see this?" said OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir on the day of Pham's death. "This is what happens when you dismantle a city."
In the ensuing months, the union successfully sued Costa Mesa on the grounds that as a general law city it did not have the authority to outsources services. After spending millions on losing battles at both the Superior Court and appellate levels, the council majority began a push for the city to adopt its own charter, which would allow it to commence outsourcing.
A paperwork snafu kept the charter question off the June primary ballot. But it made it onto the November ballot as Measure V, which in addition to the outsourcing provision also attacked prevailing wage and other union practices such as the automatic collection of dues.
Labor flexed its fundraising muscles during the Measure V campaign, amassing $500,000 compared with charter proponents' $50,000.
And in addition to seeing Measure V fall by a wide margin on Nov. 6, Righeimer came within just a few hundred votes of losing his council majority that had seemed invincible in early 2011.
That was apparently enough.
“The pounding that has been taken by this council is unheard of,” Righeimer said.
Former Mayor Sandy Genis, who didn’t get any monetary support from labor, came out as the top vote-getter on Election Day, well ahead of Mensinger, who raised $80,000, nearly four times more than Genis did. And attorney John Stephens came within a few hundred votes of toppling Monahan, a longtime councilman.
Today’s majority stands on a slim 3-2 majority.
Righeimer reiterates that he hasn’t lost his zeal for outsourcing, sticking by his election-night declaration that he plans to regroup politically and return with a new city charter initiative.
But for now, Righeimer said, “We have these notices out there. The charter didn’t pass. It can’t go for a year and a half, and I can’t do anything about that anyway.”
Despite the electoral defeats this month, Righeimer insisted that “the majority’s solid as a rock.” He just sees a different path now that the election results are in.
“I’d rather put out an olive branch and work with people rather than say I got three votes,” Righeimer said.
“I don’t think this could have happened two years ago,” Righeimer said. Two years ago all city labor contracts were extended before he was elected, making negotiations difficult, he said.
Beyond a potential return to a city charter debate, council members are still considering a police contract that dominates city salary spending. Council members recently negotiated the concepts of a contract extension with their fire department but have been unable to negotiate a different agreement with the police department.
“Now, I’m sure we’ll be sitting down with the police again,” Righeimer said. “But we’re not extending contracts…we have great police but horrible contracts.”
Righeimer said he also wants to start moving soon toward establishing a committee to assess how to draft a city charter that can gain popular support. Local control is the most important goal for him, he said.
“It’s the responsibility of both sides to put aside personal issues and feelings and do the best for the citizens,” Righeimer said.