Tuesday, June 21, 2010 | For months, the budget battle in Costa Mesa — started by the City Council’s plan to outsource half the city workforce — was cast as a fight between the council majority and general employees.

But as officials have gotten down to the brass tacks of actually passing a budget, it has become increasingly clear that the general employees are on the undercard. The main event in this ideological fight is with public safety.

Replacing a city maintenance worker with a contractor might save the city some money. But if council members really want to make serious cuts in a nearly $100-million city budget, they’ll have to fire some cops.

Any doubt of this reality was put to rest Monday when interim Police Chief Steve Staveley stepped into the ring and unleashed a one-two punch of resignation and castigation.

Staveley’s departure was unexpected and came the day before the council is scheduled to vote on the budget. He cited the massive outsourcing plan as his primary reason for quitting, and in his resignation letter, he called the City Council majority “corrupt” for their handling of the budget process.

The city countered with a charge that the manner in which Staveley resigned was not only “reckless” but also “libelous.”

City officials are pushing for $1.3 million in cuts to the Police Department, mainly by eliminating the city helicopter patrol and bringing more reserve officers onto the force.

Staveley, echoing the sentiments of many council opponents, said such radical cuts aren’t needed.

From his resignation letter:

They have pushed finance and the budget process around to get the kind of numbers that benefit their position. They have in essence lied as they create the appearance of crisis in order to appear as the white knight to a narrow band of political followers.

They have done this, I believe, because they have a political need to layoff police officers. This is completely unethical and immoral behavior and I will have no part in it.

Staveley didn’t stop there, taking a sitting City Council to task in a way rarely seen before.

The council majority plays fast and lose with the law and ethics and I am certain as individuals they will step over the line and it won’t be long before the DA or more likely the AG’s [state Attorney General’s] office comes knocking on the door. …

I have never, however, seen a council such as this one. They lack skill, training, education, knowledge, they fail to study (or at least learn). The majority either lies or are so lacking in the necessary skills that they actually believe the junk they say.

They act as if they are owners of the business that is the municipal government of the City of Costa Mesa, but they are not, they are merely trustees of these public assets both human and physical and they fail in that role completely. They are in my opinion, incompetent, unskilled and unethical.

City officials took most of Monday to fashion a response. But when it came, it was direct and forceful.

“Costa Mesa will be fine,” wrote CEO Tom Hatch. “We are debating a 3.5% cut in our police department budget. We will remain safe.”

Hatch harshly criticized Staveley for his accusations.

“If Mr. Staveley has any evidence that anyone on the council is corrupt, he should have come forward with any evidence immediately. If he doesn’t have any evidence, his allegations are simply libelous and I assume intended to inflame the police department and the community,” Hatch wrote.

Through a city spokesman, Hatch declined a request for an interview.

Staveley did respond to questions, saying his resignation letter “was written to my troops. If the council got it, well, that’s how it goes.”

The allegation of corruption, Staveley noted, “mostly centers around playing what I think is fast and loose with the process, with systems.”

For example, Staveley said council members were “meddling” in professional matters by directing police staff to work a five-day workweek with eight-hour days.

Most officers now work an alternate schedule with many on shift for four-day workweeks. Apparently, there have been long arguments between Hatch and Staveley over work schedules.

Councilman Stephen Mensinger said while some may see Costa Mesa as taking on taboo subjects such as police work schedules, the new majority stands ready to seriously question the delivery of all municipal services. And given what they see as imploding city finances, they’re not shy about moving quickly.

“We have an obligation to look at everything in our budget, regardless of whether it has a sacred cow status or not. And ultimately, all the employees will benefit from a balanced budget,” Mensinger said.

“They cannot understand, they cannot process, that the world of policing is different than real estate or development,” Staveley said.

He added that despite his concerns, Hatch altered work schedules without going back to negotiate those changes with labor.

“It’s not different than ordering layoffs and then doing RFPs (requests for proposals),” he said.

Staveley has warned City Council officials not to cut below 140 officers at the department, saying it would put the community in harm’s way. Current budget plans have the police department shrinking to 131 officers, mainly through attrition.

Perhaps Staveley’s most telling statement was one that revealed just how much the Republican strategy in this new Tea Party era has changed.

He asked: “Why are we going after cops?”

Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.