A Sad Day Of Remembrance
Today, Sunday, March 17, 2013 - St. Patrick's Day - marks a very sad anniversary for many Costa Mesans. This is the second anniversary of what is arguably the darkest day in City government history - the day young maintenance worker Huy Pham leaped to his death from the roof of City Hall just prior to being handed a six-month layoff notice just as more than 200 of his fellow-workers had received that day.
AN EXCLAMATION POINT
Pham's death was not the beginning of difficult times for city employees, but it certainly was the exclamation point on the events that day, so I feel it is appropriate to re-visit some of the events that occurred just before and subsequent to that day, so we don't forget what's been going on in our city for the past couple years. I'm going to provide you with links back to some of the things I wrote during that time, and to some news reports, too.
A PRECURSOR OF EVENTS TO COME
On February 6, 2011 I wrote an entry, HERE, that discussed items on Study Session on February 8th included, among other things, the Mid-year budget review, the dissolution of the A.B.L.E. program, abandoning two vacant police officer positions, unfunded pension liabilities and outsourcing. I was concerned - appropriately so. I subsequently wrote on February 9th, HERE, my observations from that long, painful meeting. As it turned out, that meeting was a wake-up call for those of us that watch city events closely. But nobody could have predicted what happened next.
THE DEATH OF HUY PHAM
Late in the evening of Thursday, March 17, 2011, I wrote one of the most difficult entries on this blog in all the years I've been publishing it, HERE. After more than six hours of trauma and angst, including three at City Hall where I spoke with many friends who worked in the building as they grieved at the death of Huy Pham, I gave you my account of events that day.
HERE, and then-mayor Gary Monahan's prepared statement on the tragedy, HERE in which he tried to excuse his despicable behavior the day before when he refused to leave his pub on what he was quoted as saying was, "The biggest day of my life" to travel one mile to City Hall to comfort the employees and oversee the emergency response. That same afternoon City officials held what may well be the lamest press conference in history, which you can watch in it's entirety HERE. Local news media covered the tragedy and press conference HERE and HERE. That night there was a spontaneous gathering of employees and residents at a candle-lit vigil at the parking lot of City Hall where Pham took his life. I covered it HERE.
HEALING? NOT REALLY
The following Monday, March 21st, I published an entry titled, "Today The Healing Began - Or Did It?", HERE, in which I covered the prayer vigil held by more than 100 residents that circled City Hall in a cold drizzle in honor of Huy Pham and the official City remembrance of Pham later that evening, after the skies had cleared. Unfortunately, much as we hoped that healing was beginning that day, it didn't.
In the wake of the tragedy of St. Patrick's Day two years ago the City hired former Daily Pilot editor, Bill Lobdell, as a PR consultant and CEO Tom Hatch charged him with making Costa Mesa the most transparent city in the country. I wrote about that HERE, mentioning that he had become the lightning rod for criticism. That has not changed. Lobdell had his contract extended a couple times, then was hired as an employee - one of many new positions in the Executive Offices on the 5th Floor of City Hall that caused many to speculate that the building might topple from being too top-heavy. It was compounded by the departure of many, many senior staffers to other cities. They took with them not only their expertise, but decades of institutional knowledge. That trend continues to this day.
BRICKS AND BONEHEADS
A couple weeks later some idiot tossed a brick through Monahan's door, HERE, and the nation-wide media began to pay close attention to what was going on in our city. An entry I wrote a few days later, HERE, chronicled the attitude of then-appointed councilman Steve Mensinger seemed to have about the people who spoke - many times angrily - before the council. On May 5th I provided several quotes from the most recent council meeting that showed the growing anger in the community, HERE. On May 12th The City issued even more layoff notices and the Orange County Employees Association demanded they be rescinded. I wrote about it HERE.
A DIFFICULT MONTH
June turned out to be an even more contentious month. As I observed HERE, Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit signed in and Los Angeles Times award-winning columnist Steve Lopez also began paying attention with the first of several columns on what was happening in our city. On the 16th I reported the second investigation of Pham's death being launched, HERE. On the 20th Interim Police Chief Steve Staveley - a man with more than 4 decades of police command experience - abruptly resigned in a huff, leaving behind a scathing indictment of the Costa Mesa elected leadership, HERE, and CEO Tom Hatch fired back at Staveley's accusations, HERE. History has validated Staveley's criticism. On the 21st I reported that an auditor the OCEA hired to assess Costa Mesa's financial situation reported that there was no "crisis", HERE and on the 26th I reported that the AirBorne Law Enforcement (A.B.L.E.) organization - the prototype for all civilian law enforcement helicopter programs - was shut down by the Costa Mesa City Council as a cost-cutting measure, HERE. It was a VERY difficult month.
In July Judge Barbara Tam Nomoto Schumann affirmed the Preliminary Injunction on outsourcing, HERE. She retired and the injunction was recently lifted by the successor judge.
August brought more pain. I wrote HERE and HERE about the events of the most recent council meeting, where the tenor of the community as measured by the parade of angry comments to the council gave us a measure of feeling in our city. On the 4th I reported, HERE, that the second investigation in to Huy Pham's death confirmed the first one - he jumped to his death. On the 15th I told you about how the council, in their haste to purge employees from the roster, ignored Council Policy 100-6, which prescribed EXACTLY the procedure to be followed for shuttering of departments and laying off employees as a result, HERE. And, on the 29th I reported that The New Yorker Magazine had dispatched one of their ace writers, Tad Friend, to Costa Mesa and that his report was available for reading, HERE.
And the beat went on and on, with council chambers regularly being filled by anxious employees as the lawsuit lingered and the council continued to find ways around the rules. A year ago I wrote a piece recognizing the first anniversary of that sad day, HERE and HERE and the City planted a tree in Pham's honor.
RIGHEIMER'S BOGUS CHARTER SCHEME
Righeimer, in a rush to change the very fabric of Costa Mesa Govenment, pushed too hard to get his self-serving Charter scheme before the voters on the June ballot. Due to a series of gaffes that effort failed and, when the larger electorate was given the chance to consider it in November it was resoundingly defeated.
SO MANY WORDS...
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about what has happened in Costa Mesa over the past couple of years in all forms of media. An election happened last year that affirmed Mensinger's position on the council, but also gave us former mayor Sandra Genis - a hard-working person who does her homework on issues and shows up prepared to make good decisions based on facts, not dogma. And Righeimer was elected mayor and the atmosphere at City Hall has not improved. It remains a hostile workplace for many, despite the recent observation by Righeimer at a police department celebration that "this council supports the police 100%".
MAN OF FEW WORDS...
Activist Tom Egan provided a recent observation of our situation in a commentary in the Daily Pilot, HERE, which has generated much kickback in the forms of comments.
THE BEAT GOES ON AND ON
So, as we mark this sad anniversary, we expect Monahan will have booming business selling green beer without worrying about another employee leaping to his death. Many of the rest of us will mark it with a moment of silence in honor of Huy Pham and for the beleaguered employees of the City of Costa Mesa. Labor negotiations are about to begin using Mensinger's curious "COIN" ordinance for the first time - an ordinance which seems destined to bog-down negotiations.
I think it's appropriate to close this much-too-long entry with a link to a song by the amazing Amanda Marshall that articulates how I feel about my friends who work for the City. Thanks to them for continuing to soldier on, doing their jobs in a professional manner despite the hostile atmosphere in the building. Click HERE and listen to the words as you contemplate the future of our city.