Costa Mesa City Council members (from left) Jim Righeimer, Gary Monahan and Wendy Leece. Stephen Mensinger is partially pictured. (Photo by: Nick Gerda)

Friday, May 6, 2011 | You see it in their eyes, their faces, their general demeanor, the way they talk to each other.

Costa Mesa City Council members have been under the brightest of spotlights since March when they embarked on an unprecedented plan to outsource nearly half of the city’s operations in under a year.

That decision has brought the fury of organized labor, the glare of the national media and unexpected tragedy in the death of Huy Pham on to a part-time council and a dwindling management staff that had grown used to a level of media attention that didn’t even require a full-time spokesperson.

“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety,” said City Councilwoman Wendy Leece.

And the tenor of the debate among council members is getting nastier with every passing City Council meeting.

At this week’s meeting, during an argument over whether to sell fireworks the weekend before July 4, Leece and Councilman Stephen Mensinger tore into each other in front of the audience.

Councilman Jim Righeimer had proposed expanding the number of days of fireworks sales before the holiday to allow local non-profits to make more money selling fireworks.

The fireworks debate in Costa Mesa has longstanding roots with deep emotions on both sides. Many activists said they fought for years to develop bans on local displays in order to combat fires and vandalism. Local police and fire officials also opposed changing the ordinance.

Righeimer and Mensinger (who is active with local football programs in the city) argued that the nonprofits needed the extra days for fireworks sales. And since July 4 landed on a Monday, it made sense to allow residents to celebrate legally with fireworks at neighborhood parties over the weekend.

Leece bitterly opposed the change, at one point arguing that the sports programs seeking the expanded schedule for fireworks sales were “greedy.”

That set off Mensinger.

“I don’t know how to react to the fact that you think that the kids in the youth sports groups are greedy,” Mensinger said. He then criticized Leece personally saying he had spent years helping youth sports groups fundraise so he knew the challenges. He said Leece didn’t.

“I haven’t seen you do a lot of fundraising for youth sports groups,” Mensinger said.

Leece turned the argument on Mensinger by pointing out the increasingly personal nature of attacks from the dais.

“I don’t think that when we’re up here representing the residents we need to get personal and attack each other personally,” Leece said adding that she had worked plenty of fireworks stands over her forty years as a Costa Mesa resident and mother to five children.

Leece then turned to Mensinger, who sits next to her on the dais, and said, “you will not, Mr. Mensinger, bully me.”

She was referring to a claim made in a police report filed against Mensinger by a local teacher, Joel Flores, who said that Mensinger exhibited physically menacing behavior during a heated debate between the two at a fun run at the high school this month.

Mensinger has also filed a complaint against the teacher with the local school district.

Its not just Leece and Mensinger who are showing the strain. Mayor Gary Monahan has complained publicly about what he says is the slow police investigation into an incident in which a brick was thrown through the window of his bar. He beleives that act, and other threats, are the result of his stance on the outsourcing.

Councilman Eric Bever has expressed particular frustration with members of the audience. At one meeting, he actually got into a shouting match with Leece’s daughter from the dais after she leveled scathing criticism at the council majority calling them a “boys club.”

Her mother, Councilwoman Leece has been deeply critical of the rushed nature of the proposed transition to outsourcing and says it’s created inordinate stress on city staff and residents. She also questions what it will achieve.

The pressure has also been intense on a city staff beset recently with departures.

This week, city development director Kim Brandt announced she was leaving. That’s in addition to numerous vacant slots opened up over the past month at other top positions such as police chief, director of administrative services and director of finance.

Add to that 20 police officers are leaving the city along with 10 firefighters.

And the budget process is just getting started.

City staff is now trying to develop requests for proposals to outsource 17 different city departments. That’s in addition to planning for budget-related public meetings planned every week until July.

Interim Communications Director Bill Lobdell acknowledged the human toll of the transition, noting that civility is an important goal, especially during public meetings. “It makes for more better run meeting and experience for the public,” he said.

“In some respects, I think they’ve been surprisingly civil given everything that’s been going on. Last night (Tuesday), it did deteriorate. And I think all sides will try to elevate the discussion. I don’t think anybody looks good when that happens. But there’s lots of emotion, opposing viewpoints.

The last few months have been, he acknowledged, “a grind.”

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