Grazin' With My Fellow Gray-Hairs
As promised, I write to you this evening to give you a report on the luncheon debate hosted by the League Of Women Voters at Coco's Restaurant in Fashion Island, Newport Beach today. As anticipated, it would have been difficult for you to pick me out of the crowd today because most of us in attendance had more than a little frost on top.
A GOOD, ATTENTIVE CROWD
The crowd of around 40 people, which actually pretty much filled the room, was focused and courteous as Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Councilman Steve Mensinger stood toe-to-toe with their union adversaries, Orange County Employee's Association General Manager Nick Berardino and Communications Director Jennifer Muir.
THE ISSUE - COSTA MESA OUTSOURCING
The issue to be discussed was the pros and cons of outsourcing jobs in Costa Mesa. The format was comfortable. Moderator Elliot Wilson made the introductions and launched the event. It's my perception that most of the attendees were not Costa Mesa residents and, therefore, were not really up to speed on the issues. As relative neophytes on the issues they were fair game for anything being told to them that sounded good.
RIGHEIMER LED OFF, FOLLOWED BY MUIR
First Righeimer stepped to the microphone and gave the audience his by-now canned speech about what terrible condition Costa Mesa is in financially and how the union-negotiated pensions are primarily to blame. Then Muir stood and presented her views, which rebutted some of Righeimer's claims. Then the two of them stood together and answered a few questions posed by members of the audience.
THEN MENSINGER AND BERARDINO
Following them came Mensinger and Berardino, using the same format. They sparred back and forth, with Mensinger using his "we should run the city like a business" mantra and Berardino pleading the plight of the working man in America.
While this was going on we all enjoyed a nice special lunch and most of us didn't spill too much on ourselves.
Let me give you some of the highlights and my observations:
He made the smoothest presentation, by far. Of course, he should have been, because almost all of it comes from a script he's used over and over and over again on the radio, on television and during interviews for the past 6 months. There was really nothing new for me in his message, but some of it seemed to resonate with this group.
He complained that he found the city in a financial crisis when he took office in January and, because of the union agreements in place, found himself with only two choices - layoffs or outsourcing. Really? What about negotiation? In response to a question about how much money outsourcing would save, he said, "Council knew instinctively that outsourcing would save money." That question - "How much will you save by outsourcing?" - came up time after time to both Righeimer and Mensinger and neither could answer it. The reason they couldn't answer it was because NOBODY HAS STUDIED IT!
PET BUZZ WORDS
Righeimer complained about the "unsustainable pensions" and used the term "spiking" during the conversation - the first time I've heard that misleading word in these conversations. He referred to previous councils, that had approved the contracts, as suffering from "tone deafness". That's not the first time that one has been heard.
He complained about employee work schedules and told the crowd that the city didn't really know if anyone was at work or not because they didn't have a system to log them in. Of course, he failed to mention that the variable work schedules are in place to provide staff flexibility and superior customer service - two concepts that are apparently alien to him.
LIES ABOUT INFRASTRUCTURE
He complained that we had no money for street maintenance and other infrastructure maintenance - a flat-out lie. Peter Naghavi, the Director of Public Service, has told them repeatedly that our streets were superior to most nearby cities - a fact Righeimer conveniently ignores, even though the streets in his and Mensinger's neighborhood are currently being re-surfaced. He used the phrase, "In the good times we spent on capitol improvement and in bad times we spend on staff.", as though that's a bad thing.
BALANCING THE BUDGET
When trying to compare municipal finances to those of private industry he said, referring to Costa Mesa government, "Balancing the budget means that we spend every dime that comes in." That, of course, is a steaming pile of manure, but the audience didn't know any better.
HOW DOES HE KNOW?
When discussing outsourcing and responding to a question about what happens to the staff in units that are outsourced he said, "Companies that do outsourcing usually just come in and hire all the employees that have been doing the work at the same rate. They just don't have a pension, but usually have a 401K plan." Of course, this is a "fact" that he pulled out of the air - or from some much darker place. We don't have ANY idea what the outsourcing companies will do relative to our existing staff. We'd like them to offer jobs to the staff, but can't require them to do so. We might have a clearer idea about what the outsourcing market will demand if we'd issued any of the RFPs - but we don't because we haven't.
Muir stood and addressed the staff losses over the past couple years and spoke of the voluntary efforts they made attempting to help the city through the financial tough times since the nationwide financial debacle. She spoke of greater contributions to their retirements, deferral of pay increases and furloughs, which were de facto pay cuts. She spoke of the long and rich history of collaboration between the bargaining unit she represents and the city. She spoke of outsourcing and emphasized that any such plan should be done in a measured and thoughtful way. She also mentioned the City's recent penchant for hiring consultants on no-bid contracts and then extending them without bids - and looked directly at Interim Communication Director Bill Lobdell sitting near her as she said the words.
She address the recklessness with which the council is attempting to restructure the city, and used the police department as an example, indicating the current plans will take it to "dangerously low staffing levels". She told the audience that the bargaining unit was willing to come to the table to discuss ways to resolve the differences, but were not willing to do that as long as the layoff notices were hanging over their heads. If the notices were recalled, the employees would sit down the next day. She mentioned the audit paid for by the OCEA and performed by one of the premiere auditing firms in the state that found $26 million available for general fund use. She wrapped her segment up by saying, "It's clear that this is about politics, not about balancing the budget."
A question was asked of Righeimer about how long he'd been in the city and why was Costa Mesa asleep at the wheel? He said the pensions caught the city off guard, then used some of his bogus fabricated numbers to make a point, indicating that the city had an unfunded liability of $468,000 per employee. He went on to say, "About the 5-year budget, we approved that last week." Well, that's a LIE. The council DISCUSSED a 5-year budget at a STUDY SESSION, where no action can be taken. They DID NOT approve a 5-year plan. That's where he and Mensinger get into trouble - they think that, just because something is discussed, it automatically becomes the policy - like they would do as presidents of companies in private industry. He went on to say, "You can only budget on what we know." No kidding! And how, prey tell, can you do a 5-year budget when you have NO idea what your income or expenses will be that far out?
Now it was Steve Mensinger's turn to speak. He gave a little of his personal history, including the fact that his grandmother was the first female mayor of Modesto, and mentioned his work history with former Ambassador George Argyros.
"FUND RESERVE"? REALLY?
He then launched into a little discussion of how the unions were taking over the state and the cities and that the issue was control. He mentioned a previous councilwoman - he pointedly said he'd leave the name out - who voted in favor of these union contracts. He said Costa Mesa for years has spent 15% more than it took in and mentioned the term "Fund Reserve", which made me chuckle. There is no such thing. There are "reserves" and there is "fund balance". This is a perfect example of how he just doesn't do his homework and is actually confused by municipal finance. He talked about unions "buying candidates who will vote the way they want them to."
STEVE AND UNIONS
At one point he said he thinks "there is a place for unions" - I kept waiting for him to tell us where that place was located, but he didn't. Then, before he handed the microphone to Berardino, he bad-mouthed him. Ah, Steve... ever the class act.
QUOTING THE ENEMY
One of the amusing ironies was that Mensinger, a staunch Republican, quoted Chicago Mayor and former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel during his presentation. I couldn't see Righeimer to see if he cringed.
He began by giving a brief history of himself, coming from immigrant heritage and speaking of his grandfather and father frequently. He spoke about their quest for the American dream, then slid into a comparison of the current outsourcing plan to outsourcing done by American business where work is shipped abroad to places where children work for 16 cents an hour. He told the audience that his members retire on an average of $29,000 per year, not some outrageous number like the police and fire employees do. I thought that was a big strange, but that's what he said. He also fended off Mensinger and Righeimer's accusations that the unions had taken over California by mentioning the influence of oil companies and developers - motioning toward them at the time.
MORE Q&A (AND GAFFES)
A member of the audience asked what about alternatives to outsourcing? Berardino mentioned the budget and offered again to return to the bargaining table. Mensinger said we "have to increase revenues." and I almost fell off my chair! When he repeated it I knew he was serious and that he'd strayed way off from the OC GOP playbook with that answer. He then mentioned the recent increase in the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), and that it wasn't enough. He also talked about an increase in the business license fees, mentioning Nordstrom's specifically, and said you could "double their $200 per year or quadruple it to $20,000" and it wouldn't help. Did you get that? And you wonder why he has a hard time understanding municipal finance? The poor guy can't even do basic math, for goodness sake. I was recently chided by some when I criticized Mensinger for not being able to add 2+5 and get 7. Well, here's another example.
DIDN'T DO HIS HOMEWORK
Later another person asked specifically what jobs were in jeopardy of being outsourced. Mensinger mumbled something about the Jail and Street Sweepers, but the questioner persisted. He couldn't come up with another job or unit of the 18 under consideration for outsourcing. He's either lazy or just doesn't do his homework. This is not a new characteristic - he's been that way on the dais on the Planning Commission and on the council.
HIS VIEW OF PENSIONS
During a discussion of pensions Mensinger said, "The current pension system is a Ponzi Scheme", but nobody pushed for an explanation.
ANOTHER MENSINGER FABRICATION
During a discussion of combining the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa jail operations one audience member asked Mensinger, "If that happens, what happens to the Costa Mesa homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes that would be arrested and sent to the Newport Beach jail? Would they be released onto Newport Beach city streets, near Fashion Island and the schools nearby?" His answer was,"Anybody from another city placed in the Newport Beach jail would be released in their own city." That, of course, is a LIE. When a person is released from jail in ANY city they walk out the door of that jail onto the city streets - they are not chauffeured by the police to their home city. It seemed unlikely that anyone in the room believed him.
PUBLIC ELECTION FUNDING?
One of the final questions asked about ONLY using public funding for municipal elections to avoid the influence of other donors on the elections. Righeimer said the public doesn't want that. Most in the audience seemed to find that statement inaccurate.
DON'T KNOW HOW THE CROWD FELT
As I left I tried to get the measure of the crowd, to see how they felt about the event. I knew that I didn't get any new information, except for the gaffes committed by some of the participants. Unfortunately, too many people wanted to know what I thought, so I couldn't break free to inquire of others. I did observe that several members of the audience lingered near Muir and Berardino and asked them questions following the debate. I don't know if anyone would have spoken with Mensinger and Righeimer because they bolted from the meeting as soon as it ended.
AT LEAST HE DIDN'T BODY-SLAM HER
A couple more observations... One very nice woman walked past me in the doorway of the room in which the meeting was held. It's a couple steps down into the room and it was pretty crowded, so moving around was dicey. She slowed as she passed and asked me if Mensinger was always that rude, referring to his participation in the debate. I said, "Unfortunately, yes." A minute later she circled back and approached me again to tell me that he, Mensinger, was one of the rudest people she'd ever met. She was sitting near him and, as she rose from her seat to depart, he elbowed her out of the way so he could leave. The word "chest-bumping" flashed through my mind. I apologized to her for him, and told her that behavior is not unusual.
SKULKER ON ANOTHER RECON MISSION
It will come as no surprise to regular readers to learn that out-of-work Planning Commissioner, Sanitary District Board Member, self-anointed "green guru" and Mensinger sycophant Jim Fitzpatrick was at this luncheon, nattily attired in plaid shorts and a golf shirt. At the end of the meeting, while I was speaking with a couple ladies near the exit, he walked slowly past us although there was nobody in front of him to slow his pace. He then returned just a few seconds later, walked slowly past us back into the room, then swiveled back and walked slowly past us back out of the room. It was clear to me that he was on another of his clandestine recon missions, trying to hear what I was saying. I will remind you of him skulking behind a tree at the Feet to the Fire Forum last fall, as he tried to overhear the conversation among policemen in the parking lot. Someone should remind old Fitzy that he's not in Junior High School any longer.
NOTHING NEW WAS LEARNED
I was left with the feeling that nothing new was covered at this debate. The whole thing is in litigation, so I was surprised that it actually came off. I'm not sure any of the folks at the meeting came away with good information - it seems unlikely to me. However, I'm grateful to the nice folks of the League of Women Voters for hosting this event. It was worth a try.
ONLY A SHORT VIDEO CLIP AVAILABLE
And, since the OCEA members refused to let the videographer Tanya Lyon from the Orange County Register tape segments of the proceedings, we have only a short, three-plus minute snippet plucked from the Register available for viewing. It follows here: