Costa Mesa City Council candidates submitted themselves to more than an hour of intense questioning Thursday night, as they were grilled on issues like police spending, homelessness and drug rehab homes.
The third “Feet to the Fire” forum, held in the main theater of Orange Coast College, drew well over 100 attendees as seven of the eight council candidates were questioned by local journalists. The eighth contender, Katrina Foley, didn’t attend.
Stealing the show on several occasions were Mayor Jim Righeimer and challenger Chris Bunyan, who openly clashed while sitting right next to each other.
Bunyan accused the mayor of creating a toxic environment between police and council members by, among other things, continuing his lawsuit against the city’s main police union.
“Don’t tell me I don’t get along with the police department,” Righeimer shot back.
“What are you talking about, you’re suing the police department,” replied Bunyan, a Google advertising contractor, hairstylist and longtime activist against the proposed Banning Ranch development.
Righeimer countered that it was important to make the distinction between police officers and their union.
“You had a police association hire a private investigator who tried to set up an elected official” with a drunk driving arrest, Righeimer said in defense of his suit.
Righeimer was followed home from a bar by a private investigator for the police union’s law firm in 2012. The investigator called 911 to report that Righeiemer was driving drunk.
An officer came to Righeimer’s house, but determined the mayor was not drunk after asking him to follow a pen with his eyes.
Righeimer also produced a receipt showing all he bought that night was two Diet Cokes.
Bunyan also accused the mayor of cutting down the public comment time at the beginning of city council meetings to avoid criticism.
And if the mayor worked in the private sector and talked back to customers the way he talks back to public commenters, Bunyan added, “he’d be fired.”
Righeimer shot back that the policy change, which limited general comments to 10 speakers at the beginning of the meeting, was really about ensuring commenters on specific agenda items don’t have to wait until late at night to address the council.
The problem is that “we have 50 people waiting for an item that goes ’til 1 o’clock in the morning,” said Righeimer.
Righeimer, meanwhile, said he and the rest of the council majority have turned around the city’s financial position.
The city was $24 million in debt when he got on the council, Righeimer said. In six months, he said, the council majority turned that around and put millions into reserves.
The Daily Pilot’s city editor, Alicia Lopez, and Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr. challenged the mayor to back up that claim. Righeimer responded by talking about a labor contract, but did not directly address their skepticism.
With the November election being Righeimer’s first re-election bid and an issue on the ballot for city charter changes he has supported, the contest in many ways is a referendum on his tenure in office.
Thursday’s debate was hosted by Barbara Venezia, columnist for the Daily Pilot. Questions were also asked by Lopez, Santana and Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis.
Also active in much of the debate were Jay Humphrey, a former councilman who has been a fierce critic of the current council majority, and Tony Capitelli, a staffer for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) who agrees with the council majority on several issues but differs on others.
Humphrey attacked the council majority for allowing costs for the city’s 60th anniversary party last year to blow up far beyond its $315,000 budget. The event ended up costing well over $500,000, plus a $170,000 settlement with a city events coordinator who allegedly broke spending policies.
“I’m trying to figure out why we’re spending that kind of money when we’re supposed to be fiscally responsible,” said Humphrey.
“We spend a million dollars on a party” when fire stations are falling apart, he added.
Capitelli, meanwhile, demonstrated a deeper knowledge of homelessness issues than some of the other candidates – discussing, for example, federal grant funds that can be used for supportive housing.
He also supported a return to the old comments policy, which allowed unlimited public comments toward the beginning of the meeting.
“Clearly people feel like they’re not being heard,” said Capitelli.
Public safety drew the most attention – whether it was police staffing levels, rehab homes or residents’ concerns about housing for the homeless being placed next to neighborhoods.
Police and fire services comprise nearly 60 percent of the city’s operating budget.
Candidates Lee Ramos and Al Melone wanted to boost police and fire spending to as much as 80 percent of the budget.
It was unclear how they proposed to accomplish that – such a move would likely require cutting spending to other parts of the budget, raising taxes or both.
Others, like Righeimer, argued that while police staffing can impact public safety, there are a multitude of other factors – from code enforcement to the types of people who are attracted to move to the city – that impact crime rates.
“We can triple the police force tomorrow and crime’s not going to change much,” said Righeimer.
However, even Righeimer wanted to boost police staffing up to 136 budgeted positions from the current 125.
Another candidate, Rita Simpson, largely agreed with Melone’s positions and raised concerns about the city’s rising pension payments.
The city’s payments are set to rise over the coming year, she said, for “unsustainable pension debt.”
Candidates largely agreed that the city’s unfunded pension liability absolutely needs to be addressed.
Humphrey, meanwhile, said that while it’s “absolutely imperative” to have city employees pay more into their pensions, the situation isn’t anywhere near as dire as the council majority makes out to be.
The state’s main pension system, CalPERS, generated 18 percent annual growth in its investments recently and last year’s return was 11 percent, he said.
Much of the city’s unfunded liability “has disappeared” largely due to those returns, he said.
On drug rehab homes, candidates mostly agreed the city should do everything it legally can to reduce the impacts of homes on residents – including limiting how many can be in the city.
Righeimer said a city ordinance on the issue will come before the council, and will likely include distance restrictions of anywhere from 500 to 700 feet between rehab homes.
The next “Feet to the Fire” debate will be for Newport Beach City Council candidates on Oct. 1 at the OASIS Senior Center.