Labor Day In Costa Mesa
As we approach the Labor Day holiday - a time when most of us think very little about "labor" and a lot about trying to squeeze the last drop of recreation into a waning summer before either returning to school or going back to putting our collective noses to the grindstone - I thought it might be appropriate to provide a little perspective. I originally submitted this for publication in the Daily Pilot, but I was too late and too long, so here we are...
HOW IT BEGAN
According to the Department of Labor, this holiday was first observed on September 5, 1882 - 129 years ago - in New York City, following plans put forth by the Central Labor Union. The movement grew and the first Monday of September became an official National holiday in 1894. In most cases it has been celebrated with parades and other kinds of recreation and amusement - including speeches by politicians, which certainly counts as amusement.
NOT A BIG "LABOR" GUY...
While I'm not a strong advocate of organized labor, I readily admit that I have belonged to two unions in my working life. I was a member of the Retail Clerks as a box boy a half-century ago and, at roughly the same time, was a member of the Teamsters - one of Jimmy Hoffa's boys - a requirement for the job I had putting sticks in popsicles, but that's another story.
I also readily acknowledge the part organized labor played in the advance of our nation to a position as the greatest industrial entity in the world. Without the efforts of those hardworking men and women - whose sweat and toil helped build this nation - things would have been very, very different for those of us who grew up during the last half of the 20th Century.
NOW I UNDERSTAND...
This year the Labor Day holiday takes on a more special, serious meaning for me. I view the labor/management relationship through a different prism now. Having closely watched events in this city over the past few months, for the first time in my life I can actually understand why the organized labor movement began in this country. This is the first time I can recall the leaders of a city in which I live taking such an aggressive anti-labor stand. It is the first time I can recall any local elected officials becoming so angry with the employees of a municipality that they willingly ignore their own operating rules to find ways to toss them into the unemployment trash bin. It's the first time I can recall municipal leaders fabricating a "crisis" to use as a reason to cast loyal, hardworking employees aside like a used Kleenex.
In March of this year, when it became clear to the new City Council led by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and non-elected councilman Steve Mensinger, that "pension reform" was not possible because contracts with the employee associations extended into 2014, a decision apparently was made to do the next best thing - get rid of those folks who would be eligible for the pensions. In discussions held in secret by a two-man sub-committee composed of Righeimer and Mayor Gary Monahan a plan was concocted to dump as many employees as possible by "outsourcing" their jobs to private industry.
IGNORING THE RULES
Unfortunately, they chose to ignore Council Policy 100-6, which was codified back in the early 1990s to facilitate just such an action. That policy described a methodology by which Contracting Committees, composed of relevant staff members would be formed, and calm, rational meetings would be held to hash out the technicalities of such an outsourcing plan.
THOUGHTLESS HASTE IS COSTLY
Instead, the council hastily issued 6-month layoff notices to 213 employees, including the entire Fire Department, on March 17, 2011 - St. Patrick's Day. The abrupt callousness with which this was done resulted in a day of turmoil at City Hall, the exclamation point of which was the tragic suicide of young maintenance worker, Huy Pham, who was called into work while recuperating from an injury to receive his notice but, instead, leaped to his death from the City Hall roof. It was on that day that Monahan chose, rather than going to City Hall to take charge of events and console a distraught staff, to stay at his pub, wearing his kilt, pulling beer taps on what he described at the time to a television reporter as "the biggest day of my life."
TURMOIL REQUIRES SPINMEISTER
In the nearly six months since that tragic day we have seen demonstrations - a rainy-day prayer vigil by more than 100 residents surrounding City Hall, shrines in Pham's memory placed at the site of his death in the parking lot and hundreds of speakers standing before the City Council, meeting after meeting, to express their anger at the way this issue was being handled - and a fracturing of the relationship between the City and its employees. Bill Lobdell, former Daily Pilot editor and, more recently, a columnist, was hired as the Interim Director of Communications by the city and has earned every cent of his fee. No city in recent memory has needed a Public Relations representative more than Costa Mesa the past few months.
MEDIA CIRCLED LIKE VULTURES
All this turmoil got the attention of the media - local, regional, national and international - and Righeimer became almost omnipresent on television, telling his version of events. We've had representatives of national publications - The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker magazine, for example - visiting our city and writing scathing articles. Our once-proud city had become, not the tip of the lance in the battle for pension reform that Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh envisioned, but the negative example of how this issue should not be managed.
TAD FRIENDS COSTA MESA ADVENTURE
One of those writers, The New Yorker's Tad Friend, spent more than a week in Costa Mesa this spring, interviewing dozens of people, attending meetings and observing - trying to figure out just what was going on. The product of that effort finally hit print this week in the September 5, 2011 edition of that magazine. There, beginning on page 34, is an article titled, "Contract City - When a town's budget fight turned deadly". I summarized the article in my blog, HERE, and also provided links to access it online FREE and to a radio interview with Friend about the article.
FRIEND CAPTURED THE ESSENCE
In my view, Tad Friend captured the real essence of the situation here in Costa Mesa, and provided an insight that may have been missing from the dialogue over these past several months. He quotes many of the players in this drama extensively in his piece. For example, he quotes Jim Righeimer several times, including once when describing Righeimer's views on outsourcing. He quotes the mayor pro tem as saying, "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."
MENSINGER AND HATCH
He quoted non-elected councilman Mensinger, when referring to the relationship between the employee associations and the city management, as saying, "I don't think the prisoners should be running the prison." I can't think of a statement that more accurately defines the view this council has of the employees who serve our city. The relationship between the council and the employees has gotten so bad that new CEO Tom Hatch, referring to the city council, actually told a gathering of members of the police department that "They don't trust us. They don't trust me and they don't trust you.".
POLICY 100-6 "DISCOVERED"
Eventually someone "discovered" the aforementioned council policy 100-6, and the Requests For Proposals for outsourcing of several units were canceled, the required Contracting Committees were formed and have begun meeting - just as it should have been done months ago. Had this process been followed back then, it is unlikely that young Huy Pham would have thrown himself off the roof.
SENIOR LEADERSHIP DEPARTS
In the meantime, almost every city department head has departed, leaving a leadership vacuum that only contributes to the unease at City Hall. City Manager Allan Roeder - the rock of stability that kept the city from budgetary disasters over the years - retired after serving the city for more than three decades, and was replaced by his able assistant, Hatch. There remains only one department head in place who held the same job last year at this time - Public Services Director Peter Naghavi. Most of the senior leadership positions have been occupied by consultants - hired guns retained to bring specific expertise to a city in chaos, but who have no long-term commitment to the city, its employees or residents.
STAVELEY SPEAKS OUT
And, the City Council majority has demonstrated, time after time, it intends to ignore the advice of those consultants retained for their knowledge and background. For example, they picked an arbitrary staffing level for the Police Department that met no rational criteria and ignored the sound advice of the consultants hired to do the assessment of the department and also that of Interim Police Chief Steve Staveley - who resigned in protest, leaving behind a scathing letter which, in part, called members of the City Council, "...incompetent, unskilled and unethical." This indictment came, not from a WalMart security guard, but from a man revered for his four decades of law enforcement experience and leadership throughout the state and nation.
OC WEEKLY HITS THEM AGAIN
Then, today, Chasen Marshall, staff writer for the OC Weekly, produced a multi-page tome titled, "It's Gotten Costa Messy in Costa Mesa", that is an excellent follow-on to Tad Friend's New Yorker piece. You can read it HERE. I suspect that the four members of the Costa Mesa City Council will be so thoroughly riled after reading these two lengthy articles that they'll approach next Tuesday's council meeting with elevated blood pressure and a skull full of epithets, ready to spit back at anyone who criticizes them - kind of like it's been at most meetings this summer.
TUESDAY IS A BIG DAY - GAZSI COMES ABOARD
Tuesday marks the first council meeting in almost a month - one that is packed with important issues. It will be preceded by the swearing-in ceremony of our new Police Chief, Tom Gazsi, at 3 p.m. in council chambers. Gazsi, a long-time Costa Mesa resident with a three decade law enforcement career in Newport Beach, brings experience and much-needed leadership to a department struggling to keep up with service demands as staffing levels shrink. I've met Tom Gazsi and think he's the right man for this job.
UNDERSTAND THE REASON FOR THE TURMOIL
As you mull over the circumstances in which our city finds itself over this Labor Day holiday, I hope you'll realize that this turmoil is the direct result of the political aspirations of at least one council member and the willingness of the Orange County Republican Party hierarchy to use our city as a Petri dish for experimentation without regard to the damage that will be left in the wake of their experiments. Apparently, in their view, Costa Mesa is expendable. As the crime rate rises and service responses in other areas of city government decline because of the draconian staffing cuts dictated by this council, please remember that a year from now you will be considering candidates for three council positions - enough to change the balance of power in this city and to return it to sanity.
IN THE MEANTIME...
Of course, in the meantime, you can always join those voices of dissent in the city - those few people who actually study the issues and dare to step before the council to express an opposing view. You can attend council and commission meetings and make your views known. You can write letters to the council expressing your views. Part of the reason our city is in such dire straits now is because this council assumes that, because there are not 110,000 people standing in the City Hall parking lot with pitchforks and torches, they must be doing a great job. They are not and they need more people telling them they're not. It's up to you...
Labels: Allan Roeder, Bill Lobdell, Chasen Marshall, Gary Monahan, Huy Pham, Jim Righeimer, New Yorker Magazine, OC Weekly, Peter Naghavi, Scott Baugh, Steve Mensinger, Tad Friend, Tom Gazsi, Tom Hatch