Tad Friend's Great Costa Mesa Adventure**
"Costa Mesa has no apparent center: if there's a there here, it's unclear where." And so begins staff writer Tad Friend's article, Contract City, in The New Yorker magazine in its September 5, 2011 issue, on the news stands today. (AUDIO LINK BELOW)
Let me say right at the top that I think Friend did an excellent job on his article. He spent a week out here from his home in Brooklyn researching this story. He provided a real flavor for what the city Costa Mesa has become and provides historical perspective of Orange County's roots and more recent history. He compares Costa Mesa to other contiguous cities - Irvine and Newport Beach and quotes Mayor Gary Monahan as saying, "When I first moved here, in 1987, I was always lost. You'd miss your turn and never get back."
COSTA MESANS DEFINING COSTA MESA
Friend went on to say, " Still, residents proudly define themselves in opposition to Orange County stereotypes, whether it's the tidy exurban monotony of Irvine, to the east, or the reality-show-ready opulence of Newport Beach, to the southwest. Pointing to their biker gangs and their barrio, Costa Mesans describe the city as diverse, tolerant, and - though it is heavily Republican - democratic."
"PANTSING THE TAXPAYER"
In describing the current atmosphere in Costa Mesa, Friend said, "But City Hall is now under fire from the budget-slashing wing of the Republican establishment, in a war of words and pink slips reminiscent of an earlier anti-union era, when the Pinkertons battered the Wobblies with fists and clubs. One local Republican official invoked a grade-school indignity to explain the uprising, telling me, "The labor unions have done a masterful job of pantsing the taxpayer."
RIGHEIMER AS "FRIAR TUCK"
"In Costa Mesa, the budget battle was gladly taken up by a new city council, driven by Jim Righeimer, a backslapping real-estate developer whose burly physique and eagerness to scrap call to mind Friar Tuck." I'm sorry, but when I read that comment I got a HUGE smile on my face.
MONAHAN - "AN ATTITUDE PROBLEM"
Quoting Monahan, "The fact that the unions went after Jim so hard, and the campaign was as dirty as it was, made it clear that we don't only have a budget problem; we have an attitude problem." Gee, Gary - no kidding! Although I suspect Monahan meant an "attitude problem" among the employees. I see it the other way - the attitude problem is among the majority on the city council.
MENSINGER'S WARPED VIEW
Quoting non-elected councilman Steve Mensinger, Friend said, "Referring to the unions and workers associations that the city negotiates with, Mensinger told me, "I don't think the prisoners should be running the prison". Later, when describing the "chest-bumping" event at Estancia High School, Friend said, "Mensinger told me he'd expected resistance - "Bring it on!" - but predicted that it would dissipate if his team held the line in the red zone: "Politics is very similar to Pop Warner. People think they can bully you into making their son the quarterback, but once they realize their son's a lineman they stop bothering you." It is ironic, don't you think, that Mensinger's son is a quarterback? What's that message?
RIGHEIMER - OUTSOURCE BAD BEHAVIOR AND SAVE MONEY
During a discussion of the number of units proposed to be considered for outsourcing, Friend quote Righeimer as saying the following: "The more the merrier, Righeimer believed. He said, "We had one manager we had to write a three-hundred-thousand-dollar check for because he grabbed some employee's ass. We outsource that, someone else is writing that check." Friend went on to say, " If you made government go away, you'd get rid of the problems it created, and the problems it was supposed to solve would take care of themselves."
Addressing some of the concerns employees are expressing to him, he quotes long time employee and activist Billy Folsom: Billy Folsom, a Vandyke-bearded, steel-earring-wearing N.R.A. member who's been a mechanic for the city for thirty years, said that he and his friends were outraged by what they saw as the council's stealth attack on diversity, both social and economic. "What is our role here in a race to the bottom?" he wondered. "How much more do we let the middle class get slaughtered?" The fear, among unionists and many citizens, was that Righeimer's council would destroy the city in order to save it.
HIS PREAMBLE TO HUY PHAM
He leads off his discussion of Huy Pham with the following: Then, on March 17th, one of the employees who had recently received a layoff notice - a twenty-nine-year-old maintenance worker named Huy Pham - jumped off the City Hall roof.
In a description of Huy Pham that may bring tears to the eyes of his family and associates, Friend went on to describe Pham's background, what an excellent worker he was, quoting other employees, like his supervisor, Doug Lovell. "Lovell, who was very fond of Pham, said, "He could build a house from the ground up, and he always had his eyes open for things that needed fixing." Friend described Pham's struggles - including quoting from a disciplinary hearing he had last year because he was found asleep on the job, which was apparently due to him trying to juggle more elements in his life than he could manage. "A model employee, he was stretched thin by the demands of work, his family business, and getting his contractor's license."
Friend also discussed Righeimer's reaction to Pham's death, questioning whether it was actually a suicide - suspecting it was an accident and, later, the act of a drug-addled worker. He quotes Righeimer as saying, "How do I know it was a suicide? Because there's no parapet on our roof, and he hit head first. Does that sound like a guy jumping? That sounds like a guy tripping."
RIGHEIMER PEDDLING THE TOX SCREEN
Near the end of the article Friend talks about Righeimer calling him, urging him to put in a request for the coroner's report on Pham's death, stating "you need to see the toxicology." That report, the existence of which was reported by local newspapers, indicated that Pham had residue of a common metabolite of cocaine, which metabolizes quickly, so it was assumed that he took it more than two hours before his death. Friend concluded, "So when he stood atop the city's most public building he appears to have been under the influence only of his private concerns." Yep, that's what the final word on Pham's death said - he leaped.
Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) General Manager Nick Berardino is quoted extensively in the article. He was aghast when he heard of Pham's death. Friend quotes him as saying, "I'd never had a more sinking feeling," he said. "I was a machine gunner in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but this went beyond that. It brought home to me what's happening all over America - the vicious effect of the actions of a group of politicians who've demonized working people."
He later describes Berardino's visit to Monahan's bar, where the mayor was busily celebrating St. Patrick's Day - which Monahan described on camera as "The biggest day of my life"- and of Berardino sharing the photos he took of Monahan with the assembled media at City Hall. "Berardino showed the photographs to news crews at City Hall, and Monahan became the instant symbol of civic callousness, a conclusion that was helped along when Berardino funded Internet ads showing Monahan in his kilt. The council's attempt to shape an alternative message - no one had been laid off yet, and there was no way of knowing Pham's motivations - was crippled by its hapless press conference the following day. After Tom Hatch declared that Costa Mesa was going to be the nation's most transparent government, he and the council members declined to answer questions. TV reporters savaged an ashen Monahan - "Is there no one that will speak to the people of Costa Mesa?" "you should be ashamed of yourself, sir!" - as he and the others walked out."
Friend quotes former Interim Police Chief Steve Staveley - who's first day on the job the second time around was that fateful St. Patrick's Day - as he responded to Righeimer's version of the Pham death as follows: "Responding to Righeimer's imputations, the interim police chief, Steve Staveley, said, "I've been a policeman since these guys were playing in their sandbox at their mommy's house, and, with all respect to his elected position, he should educate himself before he starts shooting his mouth off. It's morally and ethically wrong."
Later, near the end of the article, Friend again quotes Staveley: "Just before the budget passed, Steve Staveley, the interim police chief, had abruptly turned in a resignation letter that riled everyone up again. The council, he wrote, has "in essence lied as they created the appearance of crisis in order to appear as the white knight to a narrow band of political followers." The members acted "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." Staveley was right on the money, both times.
Helping us understand the genesis of this ill-fated scheme, Friend addressed the issue of the influence Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh had on events in Costa Mesa. He said, "For Scott Baugh, chairman of Orange County's Republican Party, the outsourcing plan put forward by Jim Righeimer - with whom Baugh shares an office suite - was a long overdue attempt at fiscal sanity. In a speech last year, Baugh declared, "We're the most irresponsible generation this country has ever known... selfish, narcissistic, and dependent." and announced that he would no longer endorse any Republican who took campaign contributions from a union or voted for "outrageous" pension benefits."
Friend also included Costa Mesa resident and Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach in his piece and addressed his ill-fated, and very costly, attempt to rollback pension increases for deputy sheriffs. He went on to say, "But Moorlach remains willing to try almost anything to rein pension costs in. "The other radical idea is you just fire everybody and then rehire them as new employees at new tiers," he said, referring to contracts , now in place in Costa Mesa and many other cities, that provide lower benefits to new employees. he grinned and shrugged. "You're going to be in court on that one, too." he said."
RIGHEIMER QUOTE ENDS THE PIECE
Friend ended his piece by, again, referring to Righeimer. Here's his closing paragraph: "Righeimer noted that the Orange County Register carried a column that day about how Pham lived on as a martyr. The story concluded, "Some of his co-workers believe that Pham committed suicide to make a statement, and that he did it in a ceremonial fashion in keeping with his culture, taking off his shoes and neatly placing them to one side before jumping." There were no shoes on the roof, in fact, but regardless of that detail Righeimer dismissed the possibility that there was any foreign dynamic at work in his home town. "Oh, please," he said. "That's just bizarre. This is not some kid off the boat - he's an American."
FIND IT - BUY IT - READ IT (AMENDED*)
I did not try to cover the entire article, but had to provide you with some pithy quotes to whet your appetite. I've tried to give you a little bit of the flavor of Tad Friend's article in The New Yorker. He also quotes councilwoman Wendy Leece, Finance Director Bobby Young, activist Greg Ridge and employee association President Helen Nenadal. I strongly suggest that you go find it on a news rack somewhere and spend a couple bucks to read in context. It's well worth the time and money. Or, you can do as I did - go online and subscribe to the magazine and have it available to you in ten minutes.
** Try this! HERE'S A LINK that should take you to a page where you can get 4 weeks FREE online access to The New Yorker. That should give you access to Tad Friend's article.
TAD FRIEND ON RADIO
Tip of the hat to reader and commenter Gericault for a link, HERE, to a recent radio interview with Tad Friend on his article. This 17 minute snippet gives you a flavor for the content of the article and should make you want to find it and read every word.