Packed House Hears Smart Growth Initiative Debate
Last night the Costa Mesa Republican Assembly hosted a debate between Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and former councilman Jay Humphrey on the so-called Smart Growth Initiative before a packed house at the Halecrest Community Center. It's an interesting sidebar that Righeimer - then a sitting mayor - barely beat Humphrey in the last election by 47 votes.
A BIG CROWD
My best guess - after counting heads and as the crowd morphed throughout the evening - is that between 70 and 100 people attended this event. It was a much larger turnout than anticipated by the organizers - lovely, courteous folks. The crowd seemed to be about evenly split from an allegiance standpoint. The only murmurs heard from the audience were those times when the timekeeping went astray. It was amusing to look out over the crowd and see a half-dozen people using their phones to keep time.
Also in the crowd were Mayor Steve Mensinger, Planning Commission Chair Rob Dickson, Vice Chair Jeff Mathews and Commissioner Stephan Andranian. Mesa Water Director Jim Fisler was in the room, as was Senior Commissioner Ann Perry. Of course, there were many familiar faces in the crowd - activists on both sides of issues, there to hear the discussion and support their side of the issue. I cannot begin to list them all here.
THE FIRST GAFFE
The evening got off to a dull thud for Master of Ceremonies Tom Pollitt when, before the program began, he greeted one of the guests with this question: "When are you due?" This question was directed to a 70 year-old lifetime resident and cancer survivor who has a slight weight problem. She politely informed him of the facts and moved away from him. Unfortunately, things didn't get much better for him, either.
TOUTING CENTRAL COMMITTEE CANDIDACY
Although the program began promptly at 7:00 p.m., Pollitt took advantage of the crowd to introduce himself and two others, Carol Woodworth and Cari Swan, who are all running for seats on the Republican Party Central Committee. I made a mental note to NOT vote for Pollitt.
Just before 7:15 he got around to the reason for the event - and introduced Humphrey, which he mispronounced "Humphreys", and Righeimer. And then the drama began.
RECORDING CONTROVERSY NEARLY STALLS THE EVENT
It seems that, in the hours leading up to the event, there had been some disagreement about how this event would be recorded. Keep in mind that Barry Friedland of Costa Mesa Brief was all set up and rolling as this segment unfolded. However, as they were about to begin, Righeimer said he didn't agree to have only one source recording the event and owning the copyright to the product. Clearly, this was news to Humphrey and it appeared that the event might not get off the ground. Righeimer cited folks with cameras and Iphones in the audience, already recording, so Humphrey just said "Fine" and the show began. Interestingly, the High Priestess of the Costa Mesa Public Square, Julie Mercurio, apparently live-streamed the event. I'm sure there are snippets of the event floating around the internet already. Costa Mesa Brief will have the event coverage up in a day or two.
Next the "rules" were defined by Pollitt:
1 - No interruptions by either party
2 - All discussion will be restricted to the Smart Growth Initiative
3 - All questions will be asked by the MC (Pollitt)
4 - No questions will be entertained by the audience
5 - Answers and rebuttals will be held to the time permitted
a - Question directed to individual #1 - 2 minutes to answer
b - Reply to that question by individual #2 - 2 minutes to reply
c - Rebuttal to the reply by individual #1 - 1 minute to rebut
6 - The questions would alternate between the individuals
That seems simple enough, but it wasn't... more on that in a minute.
NO PLAY-BY-PLAY TONIGHT
I was going to attempt to provide you with a summary of questions and answers by each man, but that seems futile since you're going to have a chance to view it on the Costa Mesa Brief YouTube Channel in a day or so. Besides, the way the questions were handled it was virtually impossible to tell which question was being answered. That's on Pollitt. I will, however, give you my impressions of the evening.
First, the big one... Who won? Well, I don't think either man came away from this debate as a "winner". Part of the problem was the administration of the format. Both made some strong points and both fumbled the ball.
SLOPPY MANAGEMENT OF THE PROGRAM
Pollitt established the rules in the beginning, then failed to follow them. Instead of having a crisp time-keeping procedure in place it was more than haphazard in the beginning. Nobody was the designated timekeeper. As a result, both speakers sometimes went long. And, Pollitt, rather than have both men answer the same question, frequently added elements to the issue when one of the men was about to "reply". As a result, it was difficult to figure out just what they were answering.
There were 13 questions asked, more or less. I phrase it that way because of some creative enhancement of the questions as the responses were being delivered. Instead of just letting the participants answer, Pollitt attempted to guide the answer by adding to the question. This would have been awkward enough if done by a man with a strong skill set, but Pollitt was uneasy and unprepared for this event and it showed in the way it played out. He also attempted to ask some "quick" questions at the end - a disaster. While there was no clear winner, there was a clear loser - Tom Pollitt.
JAY OFF HIS GAME
Humphrey did not have his best night. Some of his answers were vague - exacerbated by the sloppy format. While he attempted to answer each question clearly, when Pollitt messed with the format and added "meat" to the questions it threw him off.
HE TRIED, BUT FAILED
Righeimer attempted to follow the rules, but frequently didn't. Often he just didn't answer the question asked but went off in a semi-related area. Again, some of that was due to the sloppy format. Unless the video is severely edited this will become evident as you watch it. Not unexpectedly, he was less courteous.
Righeimer attempted to make a point that the ballot measure will be virtually impossible for the casual reader to understand. Of course, that's his opinion. And, he implied a couple times that people were mislead into signing the petition by intentional misrepresentation of the facts, but provided no evidence of it... and that wasn't really the issue last night, after all. The item IS on the ballot and the voters WILL get a chance to express their preference.
There were a few memorable moments. For example, at one point Righeimer, responding to a series of statements Humphrey made to a question, said, "I love you, man, but you're 100% wrong." Shortly thereafter, when replying to a response and attempting to justify the Level 1 project on Newport Boulevard by citing the large increase in tax revenue, he said, "People don't want change. They need leadership to move these projects along." There are a few ways to interpret that statement... I'll leave it to you.
The predominant theme from Righeimer might be summarized by, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" He didn't say those words, but that was the "take away" (that's a Righeimerism) I got from his comments. A cynical person might interpret that to mean "Don't make life difficult for my developer pals to reap huge profits in our city". Several times he made the point that developers will NOT be willing to put up their cash and go through a long process involving an election.
Humphrey, for his part, made the point that only a VERY small number of projects would come close to meeting the threshold - the triggers - that would launch the process to a vote of the people. He also made the point that folks are tired of rampant development and increasing traffic. Each time he did that Righeimer pushed it back in his face. And, sometimes he did so in a language known only to himself.
And on and on it went for more than an hour. The examples each used to prove a point were interpreted differently by the other. Righeimer tossed out the apparent pending demise of the Whittier School of Law, and what will happen to that property once they are gone. He implied that a new owner would be subject to the initiative - Humphrey replied that it may or may not, depending on their intended use.
UNILATERAL MANAGEMENT OF GROWTH
Throughout the discussions one thing continued to be clear to me... Righeimer is personally managing development in our city. In my view, this is NOT good for the city. He is but one vote on the City Council and, in my opinion, it is way beyond his authority to be out wheeling and dealing unilaterally. Of course, he KNOWS he has the votes, so he can act like a dictator if he chooses - which he does.
Please DO watch the Costa Mesa Brief YouTube video when it's available. You can click HERE to find it when it's posted. In the meantime, it's clear that this issue - the Smart Growth Initiative - will continue to be a hot-button item during the upcoming campaign. The event last night probably should have been Humphrey debating Mensinger, who is actually running for office this fall. As the campaign unfolds I suspect we will have more opportunities to have this important issue vetted in public and recorded for posterity.
A ROCKY START
If this was the actual beginning of the campaign season it got off to a very rocky start.