A Costa Mesa police officer guards the cordoned-off area where city employee Huy Pham jumped to his death Thursday. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Thursday, March 23, 2011 | As Costa Mesa city officials prepared last week to send out layoff notices to more than 200 city workers, their actions were being extolled as exactly the kind of tough-as-nails cost cutting that Orange County’s GOP leaders had been longing for.

And just like the Republican-led effort to end collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin, the action had a sharp anti-union flavor to it, with officials linking the layoffs to spiking costs for public sector pensions

“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.

The message from on high was clear: city councils in other local cities should follow Costa Mesa’s lead.

The day after that email was sent, Costa Mesa officially gave six-months’ notice to 213 employees of pending layoffs. Before receiving his notice, Huy Pham, a city maintenance worker, jumped to his death from the City Hall building, his body landing near the parking lot reserved for members of City Council.

In the days since Pham’s suicide, city leaders have faced harsh criticism — primarily from labor leaders and community activists — about how the layoffs were handled. And they’ve been characterized as ideological extremists who are taking advantage of a tough economy to sacrifice their city on a GOP altar of pension reform.

City officials have hotly objected to that characterization as well as comparisons to Wisconsin, saying that their drastic outsourcing plan is needed to balance next year’s fiscal year budget, which starts in July. And they’ve called attempts by union members to lay blame for Pham’s death at their feet “despicable.”

Yet in the aftermath of the suicide, there are real questions about how city officials can move forward.

This week, a coalition of community residents gathered at Costa Mesa City Hall to formally call on city leaders to rescind the layoff notices and engage in more open discussions and hearings with the public before moving forward with such aggressive plans to privatize a litany of city operations.

“If I choose to ignore the timing and manner of this man’s death, I do him a disservice,” said community activist Greg Ridge after Tuesday’s press conference standing next to a memorial to Pham at city hall near where he died. Looking at the sidewalk, Ridge asked himself out loud, “How do I ignore that?”

Joe Nation, a former state assemblyman from the Bay Area who is now a professor of public policy at Stanford University, said there is a definite anger toward public employees from private sector employees who have suffered more during The Great Recession. But, he said, the public does not react well when it perceives a group as being treated unfairly.

“I think people look at what happened in Wisconsin, and perhaps what happened in Costa Mesa, as arbitrary and political,” Nation said. “Show me one private sector company board of directors saying we are going to fire half of our employees tomorrow.”

Officials from some neighboring cities are already distancing themselves from Costa Mesa’s brand of outsourcing.

Tuesday, Orange City Manager John Sibley sent out a memo to all city employees that took direct aim at how Costa Mesa leaders handled the noticing of the layoff.

“I don’t pretend to know all of the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Huy Pham nor can I affix blame on the leadership of that city,” Sibley wrote. “I can, however, question the wisdom and manner of their actions and it is a reminder to all of us about the importance of treating people with dignity and respect.”

Sibley went on to say that Orange is facing continued revenue shortfalls and that “adjustments must be made.”

“I can assure you, however, that those adjustments and changes will be made through a reasoned process and I will do everything I can to prevent the type of actions that gave rise to the traumatic situation that our colleagues in the City of Costa Mesa are dealing with,” he wrote.

Other city managers, while not as explicit as Sibley, had similar sentiments.

“Mass layoffs are not an option for us,” said Huntington Beach City Manager Fred Wilson.

Differing opinions — however slight — are even starting to emerge among the Costa Mesa majority that approved the outsourcing plan earlier this month. Councilman Jim Righeimer said the city should stay focused on the plan.

“What happened a week ago was a tragedy for the whole city,” Righeimer said. “Whenever somebody does that, especially, an employee. It’s a horrible situation.”

But the city council still has a job to do, he said.

“The budget is due July 1. We have three months to put together a budget without tricks or gimmicks. We have to actually balance the budget,” Righeimer said. “We all live here with our families and kids and we’re just doing what we think is best for our community.”

Councilman Steven Mensinger, an ally of Righeimer’s, said he doesn’t see the issues as union or non-union, but one of a city spending more than it takes

“We’re not afraid of the issue. I wasn’t put here by the OC GOP or the unions,” he said.

Yet Mensinger also hinted that officials are looking at ways of turning down the heat. “(City CEO) Tom Hatch is exploring alternatives with outside groups right now,” he said.

Labor leaders acknowledge that city officials have reached out to meet this morning. But they don’t seem to have much faith in this city council.

“This is a politically opportunistic group of council members who have no moral compass in relation to using the lives of working men and women to advance their political agenda,” said Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association

Berardino pointed to an OCEA public records response from the city disclosing all written communication between council members and the city manager regarding the layoffs and downsizing.

“There were none,” he said.

But any feelings that Costa Mesa went too far with its plan are not unanimous.

“I don’t think Costa Mesa will be isolated in their approach by using significant layoffs,” said Huntington Beach City Councilman Don Hansen. “They’re not gonna be by themselves on this — right now they may be first but they won’t be alone.”

County Supervisor John Moorlach – who represents Costa Mesa as part of Orange County’s second supervisorial district – said he sees other cities with similar dwindling reserves and expects other confrontations over heightened public pension costs. He applauded the speed with which Costa Mesa leaders are moving.

Moorlach said he expects more pressure on labor leaders to give concessions on pension benefits, especially as more cities take the path explored by Costa Mesa. “When you are so successful in getting good wages and pension benefits, they come home to roost should an economy do what it’s doing now,” Moorlach said.

He added that any talk about Pham’s suicide is pure politics and discounted the pressure on members of Costa Mesa City Council.

“How do you blame the fireman for showing up at the fire?” Moorlach said.

But the key questions, say other local public officials, are: How big is the fire? And how big of a hose is needed to put it out?

Orange Mayor Carolyn Cavecche said she doesn’t pretend to know the details of Costa Mesa’s fiscal situation. And she was careful to not pass any judgment on the city’s actions. But she did say “every council handles (their fiscal issues) differently, depending on their beliefs.”

Orange, which is a similar-sized city to Costa Mesa, has approached the downsizing of the city workforce “in a very deliberate manner,” Cavecche said.

Sibley was more direct in his memo. “City Council has given no indication that they will follow the approach taken by Costa Mesa…Rather, the Council has asked for a process and a review of organization options that will allow a rational approach to achieving long-term budget stability.”

Staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.

Please contact David Washburn directly at dwashburn@voiceofoc.org And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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