Costa Mesa Mayoral Candidates Spar At Forum

Two former political allies-turned-foes running for Costa Mesa mayor, Sandy Genis and Katrina Foley, sparred at a political debate Monday evening, where moderators pressed the councilwomen to explain a late-night vote last year when Genis and two other council members stripped Foley of her title as mayor.

At a “Feet to the Fire” forum at Orange Coast College, an election year debate hosted by the Daily Pilot and Voice of OC, moderators Barbara Venezia, John Canalis and Norberto Santana, Jr. asked Genis and Foley to explain how they went from campaigning for each other in 2014 to rivals in 2018.

“Here we are, four years later, and your visions have changed…so let’s start by talking about how your visions are different,” Venezia said.

Genis described her decision in November to remove Foley as “the best decision for the city, possibly not for myself politically,” saying Foley doesn’t respect norms of government and policies and procedures.

“You need to be respectful of each other, you need to be respectful of precedent, and when you’re not, you throw out the checks and balances that are fundamental to government,” Genis said later in the evening. “What you’re saying is it’s okay to be a despot if you’re a benign despot? It’s okay to be a dictator if you’re a benign dictator?”

Genis was first elected to the city council in 1988 and served until 1996. She was elected to the council again in 2012 and 2016.

Foley served on the council from 2004 to 2010 and was re-elected in 2014.

Foley says it’s a falsehood that she and Genis are much different, and said she was removed despite her bests efforts to work with Genis.

It’s a “false narrative” that she and Genis have different visions, Foley said, saying they have both tended to vote the same way on most major issues.

“There’s a rewriting of history that’s been happening,” Foley said. “This is a shared, common vision, to make Costa Mesa safer, cleaner and make it a great place for families – it’s really about who is more effective at getting to the goal.”

“I think the other council members did not want me to run with the title of mayor on the ballot,” Foley said.

The two city councilwomen are both running to be the city’s first directly-elected mayor during a pivotal transition from at-large to by-district elections. The city council will expand from five at-large seats to six district seats with an at-large elected mayor. Districts three, four and five are up for election this year, with the remaining seats up for election in 2020.

The vote to strip Foley of her title as mayor, which up until this November has been a ceremonial position rotated between council members, has gone largely unexplained to the public. Genis and other council members have, since the vote, gone on to accuse Foley of bullying staff and creating an unproductive political environment that has resulted in alienation from other government agencies.

Foley and Genis were political allies in 2014, donating to each other’s campaigns and walking door-to-door to get each other elected.

Much of Monday’s debate was difficult to hear – between questions, the two candidates spoke over each other and moderators, with periodic heckling from the audience.

Genis said at the debate Monday she began to regret her support for Foley as mayor in early spring 2017.

“When you go with your adopted policies, that’s what protects the residents – it provides the checks and balances that are essential to good government,” Genis said. “We would, as a group, agree to move forward a certain way and Ms. Foley would change direction unilaterally.”

“I, many, many times, said the mayor does not have the authority to do this. We are colleagues, the mayor has limited authority,” Genis said. “It’s not the mayor’s job…to order around the city manager, to order around department heads.”

Genis cited instances, “stupid things, even,” where Foley waived a four-minute time limit for council comments.

“In some ways, it is trivial, but when it’s time after time,” Genis said. “Ms. Foley voted for an ordinance that your signs can’t be out more than six weeks before the election…hers are already out, she votes for things that will apply to everyone else.”

Genis also said officials at the school district and state agencies didn’t want to work with Costa Mesa.

Santana asked Foley if she bullies staff.

“She’s vague because she doesn’t have any examples,” Foley said.

Genis responded, saying she confronted Foley before the last city council meeting about a person she had been bullying.

“When I told her who the person was…she grabbed that person, took her out in the hall before the meeting, we couldn’t even start the meeting,” Genis said.

Genis did not provide specific examples or names of people Foley allegedly bullied, saying she didn’t want to put people on the spot.

“For almost one year – it’s September – we’ve been asking Ms. Genis to share, what have I done? What did I do that’s so horrible?” Foley said. “And she can’t give any clear examples.”

Foley pointed to her endorsement by the Costa Mesa Employees Association, and said she periodically checks with the city manager, city attorney and HR director to determine whether any specific complaints have been filed against her.

“I’ve been the same person, I’ve always been the same person who advocates for what they believe,” Foley said. “I’ll continue to be that person.  The only person that has changed is Ms. Genis.”

When questions shifted to other issues, such as the city’s pension liability and homelessness, the candidates were often on the same page.

Both candidates noted that city employees have been asked to increase contributions to their city pensions. They both emphasized the need for the city to increase emergency shelter housing to comply with a federal lawsuit, although Genis added that she does not agree with the judge’s emphasis on emergency shelter housing. Genis said she’d prefer to see the emphasis on transitional or permanent supportive housing.

Both also expressed concern with the growing epidemic of opioid use, pointing to the need for reforming state regulation on sober living homes.

Venezia asked the candidates to name a personal quality they would bring to the mayor’s office.

Genis talked about her ability to “work with a diversity of people” – pointing to friends in college that included members of the reserve officers training core (ROTC) and anti-war activists.

“I feel that I have an ability to reach out to people, and I have an ability to listen to people,” Genis said.

Foley, looking directly at Venezia and not Genis, said she is a loyal person.

“If there’s something not right with the relationship, I try to reach out,” Foley said. “Some people, it’s just gone…you can never repair it…but I really do try to get over things quickly and try to find something else we can agree on.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.