Read Along And Watch His Nose Grow
Did you ever have one of those projects that seemed so overwhelming that you just didn't know where to begin? Well, tonight I'm facing that challenge as I contemplate how to respond to non-elected councilman Steve Mensinger's commentary presently appearing online in the Daily Pilot and will likely be in print over this weekend. You can read it HERE.
SO WRONG IT CAN'T WAIT...
There is SO much in this commentary that cries out for rebuttal that it just makes my head spin. But, even though this has already been a long day, I'm going to give it my best shot.
"HE'S WRONG, BUT I AGREE WITH HIM"
Right off the bat Mensinger, in his attempt to criticize Jeff Harlan's most recent column, HERE, basically agrees with him that he and his council-majority buddies don't follow the traditional governmental process! That admission alone validates much of what has been said here over the past 18 months and should certainly provoke folks to investigate further. To him, though, it's no big deal.
THE "INFRASTRUCTURE" MYTH
He justifies that behavior by beginning with, "...past councils neglected Costa Mesa's infrastructure needs to feed the public employee pension beast they created." That's a lie! Past councils directed the staff to do assessments of the roadway infrastructure and come up with a plan to improve the conditions. That was done and progress was being made toward that goal. However, the economic downturn that began in 2008 and included the failure of Lehman Brothers - costing Costa Mesa $5 million in invested dollars - cause the council and staff to re-trench and re-prioritize.
THE "RESERVES" MYTH
He says, "...past councils burned through more than $30 million in reserves because they refused to properly right-size City Hall given current economic realities." Lie #2. Previous councils and senior staff, in their skillful management of resources, built up those reserves specifically for the kind of catastrophic financial situation in which we've found ourselves. And, before Mensinger was appointed, those folks began - to use his term - to "right-size" City Hall by offering retirement incentives, using furlough days, freezing any pay increases and, eventually, downsizing the staff by approximately 30% while attempting to maintain service to the residents of the city.
THE "PENSION" MYTH
He says, "...past council policies have led to more than $250 million in unfunded pension and retire health benefits." Lie #3. It's the economy, stupid! The kick in the teeth we all felt when the economy went south was also felt by the CalPERS program. Their management model failed to produce the returns necessary to maintain funding of the programs, so the City - along with EVERY other city participating in the CalPERS system - had to fork over lots of dollars.
FAR FROM IT!
He says, "So yes, this Costa Mesa council has been different. We have put residents first." Lie #4. Far from putting the residents first, this council - the one that only took 3 votes to place him on - has done exactly the opposite of his claim. They have refused to negotiate in good faith with the public safety organizations and, as a result of their "no hiring without a second pension tier" mandate, have required them to work long, long hours to keep our streets safe. They violated their own rules and arbitrarily attempted to impose 6-month layoff notices on half the city staff - which resulted in the tragic death of Huy Pham and has caused chaos and millions of dollars in legal bills in this city for the past 18 months.
They arbitrarily imposed a police staffing level that reduced the manpower levels to those not seen since the 1980s, ignoring the solid advice of their highly-qualified consultants on the issue AND the best advice from Interim Police Chief Steve Staveley, who finally resigned in disgust. Through their ignorance, incompetence and stubbornness they attempted to impose a work schedule on the police that caused chaos in the ranks and service levels to suffer. It was finally overturned by Chief Tom Gazsi.
UNNECESSARILY DESTROYED A.B.L.E
A year ago they arbitrarily shut down the AirBorne Law Enforcement Program (A.B.L.E.), which served our community and neighboring communities for more than 4 decades and had become the model on which all other municipal airborne organizations were based. Despite the fact that A.B.L.E had enough money in the bank to operate for two more years without taking a cent from either Costa Mesa or Newport Beach, Mensinger's council forced the closure of operations and the sale of all the equipment. We ended up paying $13,000 per month for almost a year for a hangar we didn't use and got fire-sale prices for the helicopters. Now we're paying $700 per hour for less-than-reliable service from Huntington Beach and the council crows about it.
FIRE SERVICE SUFFERS
Their intransigence about that second pension tier has prohibited Interim Fire Chief Tom Arnold from implementing his revolutionary restructuring plan that will save the city millions annually when it's finally installed. And, that same intransigence has prohibited us from hiring replacements and has caused hundreds of hours of overtime to be worked by the fire staff - something that the council has used as an example of "greedy public employees".
Despite their demands for a second pension tier and draconian belt-tightening via their outsourcing scheme, they authorized the hiring of several senior level managers - some jobs given to people who had no background in that kind of work and in positions that didn't previously exist - in the Chief Executive's Office without any formal recruitment effort and before the second tier could be implemented. That kind of cronyism has continued to the present time. While every other part of the organization has contracted in size, the CEO's office has doubled. Of course, 18 months ago I joked that their perfect organization model would be CEO Tom Hatch and a half-dozen contract administrators. Maybe that's where we're heading after all.
The list goes on and on and on. If that's their definition of "putting the residents first" you know we're all in big trouble.
Mensinger goes on to list, with bullet points, other issues he feels rebut Harlan's characterization of this councils actions. He says that, "while sticking to the best governmental processes..." Well, remember in the beginning he admits they didn't do that!
His bullet points are that his council:
"Passed the first two balanced budgets (without the use of reserves) in recent memory." He conveniently forgets to mention that they gutted several organizations and programs to do that.
"Hired and promoted seven new executive level leaders, remarkable for the fact that they live in the city they manage." And this, in his alternate-universe kind of thinking, is a badge of accomplishment? He neglects to mention that we didn't NEED many of those jobs and that most of them went to people with no appropriate backgrounds without a competitive recruitment effort.
"Poured more than $20 million in infrastructure for the 2012-2013 fiscal year alone." He conveniently neglects to mention that much of that work was already on the schedule, that they sacrificed public safety staffing to accomplish it and then dismantled the city street crew that would have done much of the work in a more cost-effective manner.
"Has taken a stand against the unsustainable demands of public employee unions, bringing sanity back to the city's fiscal policies." First of all, we DON'T have any employee unions in this city. We have employee associations, which do NOT have the authority to perform job actions - strikes, for example. When you start from a foundation of ignorance, everything else you say is suspect. "Taking a stand" is one thing, but the failure to negotiate in good faith because the OC GOP leaders don't want you to is entirely another story.
"Explored the viability of outsourcing various city services, identifying millions of dollars in annual savings by both privatizing services and delivering in-house services more effectively." That term, "explored", is much too benign. What he means is, "We took a meat ax to the established procedures, prematurely issued more than 200 layoff notices, caused a kid to take his own life, had the then-mayor demonstrate his callousness by not attending to our business - he attended to HIS. We had wave after wave of layoff notices issued, which tore the scab off that wound a half-dozen times for hundreds of staffers as the council actions caused millions in legal bills to be racked up by one of the most expensive law firms in the country, working with an open-ended contract." His little exploration has now potentially saddled us with an international firm to run our jail that has recently become notorious by failing in their $60 million assignment at the London Olympics. Oh, yeah, this foray into outsourcing has turned out to be just dandy.
"Has made Costa Mesa one of the most transparent cities in the country and nation, according to the Orange County Register, Orange County Grand Jury and the national Sunshine Review." Well, maybe. Some of the "transparency" initiatives have improved information flow and some have not. For example, the new website - a $50,000 expense that may or may not have been necessary - is a long way from being easy to use. And, where the rubber meets the road, in those areas that are important, like the timely distribution of agendas for city meetings, it seems like those are slower and slower being revealed. Friday, for example, the agenda notification about next Tuesday's special council meeting on Jim Righeimer's Charter didn't get sent until almost 8:00 p.m. That's well short of the mark for timeliness. And, the new telephone system is not customer-friendly at all! With the reduced staffing we've become accustomed to delays in call-backs, but the new system seems to stiff-arm you every step of the way. Of course, we recently tossed aside the Information Technology Manager position and the person who had held it for a decade. How does that make any sense at all?
JIM RIGHEIMER'S CHARTER
"Has developed a charter that, if put on the ballot and passed by the voters in November, would take back local control from Sacramento politicians (the current charter was developed after seven months of public input and literally hundreds of suggestions by Costa Mesa residents)." I'm glad he saved that load of manure until last. First of all, the way Jim Righeimer's Charter reads today, the only ones having "local control" will be him and his cronies. It is packed with his pet projects and is devoid of effective controls to prevent abuse, corruption and misbehavior by those in charge. Mensinger lies when he says that it was developed with public input. Anyone paying attention knows that nearly EVERY suggestion from the public for modification of the charter document Jim Righeimer personally crafted by cutting and pasting random phrases from a variety of sources was ignored. Not only ignored, but ignored accompanied by snide, derisive comments from the dais, as well. No, the document they will vote to place on the ballot Tuesday is Righeimer's baby, designed to satisfy his masters in the OC GOP and to finally get some of his vindictive, anti-employee schemes codified somewhere after decades of failure. Don't let Mensinger or anyone else try to convince you that this charter is good for our city - it's not.
NOT THIS CHARTER
As I've said MANY times, I'm not against considering a charter for our city. While three-quarters of California cities DO NOT have charters and enjoy the considerable protections provided by the state as General Law cities, 25% do work under the Charter form of government. However, because they can permit mischief - as witnessed by Bell and Vernon - it is essential that charters be carefully created using the full intellectual and moral resources available in the community. That means a commission or committee charged with the creation of the document using significant public input so the final product actually meets the city's needs. It does NOT mean a skimpy, inadequately safe-guarded, self-serving document created by one man.
Over the next few months the voters of this city will have several opportunities to observe the candidates for city council. There are presently nine people in the race and Mensinger is part of a slate that has been touted by the OC GOP for months - even before any of them had announced their candidacies. Mensinger, Colin McCarthy and Gary Monahan will almost certainly be teamed to run against all comers and will likely be the recipients of lots of outside financial support. As you consider the candidates remember Mensinger's commentary and how he played fast and loose with the truth. When he received three votes from the council and accepted his appointment to replace Katrina Foley on the dais he told the audience that what he really wanted to do was be a coach. Well, I hope the voters will help him reach that goal in November by providing him with plenty of spare time to pursue it.