Former Costa Mesa Councilwoman Katrina Foley at a police event. (Photo credit: unkownn)

Things are getting so politicized in Costa Mesa, that swords have even been drawn over a meet and greet that the city’s cops and firefighters had scheduled at a local Target.

The events are commonplace across most cities. Kids get to sit in fire trucks and police cars, while parents can chat with public safety officials and get a sense for their mission.

But things aren’t so simple these days in Costa Mesa, a city divided over an unprecedented privatization effort. Any interaction among the citizenry and cops and firefighters is being looked at through differing lenses.

The view of the City Council majority, which is pushing to outsource a huge chunk of the city’s workforce, is that such events amount to propaganda opportunities for public safety workers.

So the Target event was cancelled. And city officials are saying that until their budget is resolved, all such events are on hold.

The decision has infuriated former Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who both have bitterly opposed the privatization effort. She says the cancellation of an opportunity for residents to interact with the people who protect them shows the dangerous direction the city is heading.

The controversy began when City Councilman Stephen Mensinger saw a flyer sent out by Foley about the event that had her and Leece posing with firefighters, and public safety union officials.

Mensinger questioned whether the event would trigger overtime costs for officers and whether such costs were budgeted. He also questioned whether police and fire officials should be the only ones to get special introductions to the public.

And while Mensinger didn’t necessarily question the benefits of meeting with public safety workers, he wonders why just them? “We should do an open house with the whole city. Let see how many people care?”

Those kinds of questions were enough for CEO Tom Hatch to pull the plug on the event. Police officials apparently did not agree with the cancelation, a city spokesman confirmed, but police officials could not be reached for comment.

“What should be a natural feel good event spun quickly in his opinion into a political rally or protest depending on what side you’re on regarding these police officer firefighter pensions,” said Interim Communications Director Bill Lobdell.

Once others, like the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association started asking questions about distributing flyers at the event about public safety pensions, Hatch pulled the plug, Lobdell said.

“City staff wants to stay non partisan right down the middle,” Lobdell said. “Tom just felt in this kind of politically charged environment, it was an event the city didn’t want to be associated with.”

Foley said the city administration is overreacting.

“Does that mean now that we prohibit our police and fire to attend community events because we fear that their mere presence is political. In my opinion, that’s bad for the community.”

Foley said it’s important for public safety and young people to have such introductions, and points to the concept of community policing as built around things like meets and greets.

“Anytime you can make a connection between a person from public safety and a young person, so they can come to depend on them as people to respect instead of hating, that’s a good thing,” Foley said.

“My concern is that what’s going on at City Hall is just bleeding into every aspect of living in our city and that’s my greatest concern,” Foley said.

Yet Mensinger said such events need to be looked at from a grown-up perspective. Amidst spiraling public safety pension costs, as well as overtime, it’s important that public safety personnel are not just presented to the public as heroes.

Therefore, he said, these types of events also should be inclusive of all council members, and employees.

“Anytime there’s a meet and greet for one group,” he said, “it begs the question of why isn’t it for every group.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Wendy Leece was against the decision to cancel the event with the city’s police and firefighters. Wendy Leece was not interviewed for this story. We regret the error.

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