The Battle Resumes in Costa Mesa

Jim Righeimer (p)
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After more than six months of relative political tranquility at Costa Mesa City Hall, things are starting to heat up again with labor talks stalling, privatization chatter stirring and dormant court battles reviving this week, just as the 2014 election season looms.

“It’s deja vu,” said City Councilwoman Sandra Genis after Tuesday night’s council meeting, referring to the last few years of intense political battle as Costa Mesa turned into a West Coast version of Wisconsin’s conflict between Republicans and labor.

“We’re probably headed in the same direction,” Genis added.

In March 2011, the city made national headlines when a worker jumped to his death from the roof of City Hall after city leaders issued mass lay off notices as part of their plan to privatize the majority of city departments in reaction to a significant dip in reserves during the Great Recession.

The initiative triggered more than two years of tense council meetings, protests, lawsuits and a charged 2012 election season.

The 2012 election was tough on the Republican council majority, as they watched Genis, a vocal critic, draw the most votes and a key majority member,  former Mayor Gary Monahan, come within a few hundred votes of losing his seat.

In addition, 60 percent of city voters rejected the council plan for creating a pro-privatization city charter. In that same month, the California Supreme Court rejected a city plea to depublish an appellate court decision blocking the privatization effort.

After the election, Mayor Jim Righeimer and the council majority sounded conciliatory but noted that their effort to change the city charter would continue alongside talks with labor groups to see whether an accommodation could be reached.

That clearly hasn’t happened and the two sides are still far apart on how they view the role of City Hall.

Tuesday, Costa Mesa’s general employees union headed back to Orange County Superior Court, seeking an injunction against another city outsourcing plan, this time for the local jail.

Attorneys representing the city told Judge Luis Rodriquez that since last November’s election, city officials have held seven meetings with labor groups on the jail outsourcing issue and were frustrated over the lack of progress.

Rodriguez ultimately denied the restraining order sought by the Orange County Employees Association, ruling that there was nothing to enjoin because the City Council had yet to take any vote.

The two sides still face a Jan. 6, 2014, trial date on the issue of whether the city can legally outsource certain functions, and the city remains blocked by an injunction in the interim. City officials asserted that the court decision allows them to privatize jail operations and payroll services. Union officials disagreed, arguing those kinds of options aren’t available to a general law city.

Yet late on Tuesday night, council members voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Wendy Leece dissenting, to outsource city jail operations.

City Council members acknowledged that the court hearing, the discussions about jail outsourcing and the vote Tuesday night to appoint a city charter study panel indicate that a political confrontation is on the horizon.

“Democracy at work,” is how City Councilman Steve Mensinger described the maneuvering during a break in Tuesday night’s council meeting.

Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch on Tuesday acknowledged that “similar issues are on the table” but added that city officials are “taking a different approach” by attempting to downsize government without layoffs and by creating a city charter commission with broad membership.

“Outsource what you can without layoffs” is how Mayor Jim Righeimer describes the current direction from the council majority.

Yet at Tuesday night’s council meeting, labor challenged the council majority and lamented the lack of negotiation and collaboration.

According to Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, Costa Mesa’s city workers and OCEA came into discussions “cautiously optimistic that post-election, the new year would provide both sides with an opportunity to put the rancor and divisiveness of the past two years behind us.”

Yet on Tuesday night, Muir said, “It soon became apparent that while the city was willing to enthusiastically engage in discussions regarding the outsourcing it wanted, it absolutely refused to discuss anything else its employees wanted. The discussions thus became simply another verse of this council majority’s all too familiar tune: “Our way or the highway.

“The City Council majority now appears to be poised to resume the misleading and politically motivated campaign against employees that has characterized the past two painful years at City Hall,” Muir said.

The fundamental disagreement between the two sides is on the role of government. The Costa Mesa council majority believes the private sector can be counted on to run city services in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Labor does not.

“We are confident the vast majority of Costa Mesa residents want law enforcement to be provided by city employees who are directly accountable to the community, not by for-profit companies that are accountable only to their shareholders and the bottom line,” Muir said, referring to the jail outsourcing plan.

And while Righeimer said, “There’s clearly more respect on both sides for each other,” it’s also clear there’s not much progress.

Muir said olive branches seeking an accommodation were offered in April to council members and added that there was no response.

Meanwhile, Righeimer and Mensinger, who lead the majority, said Tuesday night they are not interested in direct talks with labor leaders. Those kinds of negotiations should remain with formal negotiators that the city has hired.

“Cutting a deal is not how things should be done,” Righeimer said, echoing his past criticism of local Republican politicians reaching accords with labor groups to ensure their political stability in office.

In addition to the spiraling legal bills, estimated to top $1 million, city leaders have also engaged private-sector lawyers to conduct labor negotiations.

Mensinger said that the city has been making progress in the interim, passing two balanced budgets without drawing on reserves.

Righeimer also said there’s a message for employee groups about the extra money saved by any initiatives.

“It’s the citizen’s money. It’s not your money,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of mistrust, polarization,” said Robin Leffler, president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, who attended Tuesday’s council meeting and continues to be critical of the council majority’s use of 3-2 votes to shape policy.

With both Righeimer up for reelection next year and Leece’s seat becoming vacant, this week’s confrontation clearly indicates that 2014 is likely to be much hotter than the last one.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Councilwoman Leece would be up for reelection. She is termed out but her seat is up next year.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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