Intimidation As An Art Form In Costa Mesa
Quashing public opinion through intimidation has become an art form in the City of Costa Mesa. We've talked about this many, many times in the past, but let me tell you about the most recent, but probably not the last, attempt to discourage members of the public from criticizing members of the power elite in our city through the abuse of their official power to direct police activity against a resident.
TERRY KOKEN'S PARODY
During the City Council meeting on April 19, 2016 Terry Koken - who fancies himself somewhat of a minstrel/bard - stepped up as speaker #7 during Public Comments and used his three minutes to address the city council. His was a fairly benign comment and included an offer to make the Fairview Park Initiative petition available to the council members to sign. And, part of that time was used to sing a little ditty - a parody of an old Woody Guthrie tune,"This land is my land". If you click HERE and scroll down to comment #7 you can hear Koken's tune for yourself. Based on what I saw live, and later on streaming video, it seemed to me that his little tune was accepted as it was intended - a light-hearted bit of fluff for the council during a completely non-confrontational comment by Koken. Mayor Steve Mensinger apparently thought the same, since he thanked Koken and offered a light-hearted response about "Lynyrd Skynyrd". And the meeting moved on.
Parody lyrics to that classic tune have been sung in one form or another by many people over the years, including Pete Seegar singing them to an elementary school group four decades ago. In fact, this song has so many parodies that it's hard to keep track of them. For example, this 17 second parody by someone named Richard Chang sounds VERY much like Koken's version.
AN ESTABLISHED CROONER
Keep in mind that Koken has crooned to the council many times over the years. One time then-mayor Gary Monahan attempted to have him silenced, but City Attorney Tom Duarte reminded him that singing is protected free speech. Here are the parody lyrics that Koken sang on April 19th:
This land is my land,
It is not your land,
I've got a shotgun,
And you ain't got one,
If you don't get off,
I'll shoot your head off,
This land is private property.
NO BIG DEAL, BUT...
Now, I must admit that, sitting in the rear of the auditorium, that "shotgun" reference got my attention, but I thought no more of it because nobody on the dais appeared to take offense to it. The mayor's light-hearted response seemed to affirm that. However, there apparently WAS more to it based on subsequent events.
...A WARNING A WEEK LATER
A week later, on April 26th, Koken attended the Jim Righeimer/Jay Humphrey debate of the Smart Growth Initiative at the Halecrest Community Center- a packed-house event also attended by Mensinger. After the debate was over Koken passed by Mensinger - who was a hulking presence near the exit - and shook his hand. According to Koken, Mensinger pulled him close and made a remark about consequences of the ditty he had sung. Another man, a political operative and known associate of the power elite, was nearby when this occurred and made a comment that Koken could expect to be contacted by the California Highway Patrol... a strange comment, indeed, so Koken just shrugged it off.
AN "INTERVIEW" BY THE POLICE
However, early the next morning, April 27th, Koken received a telephone call from Costa Mesa Police Sergeant Scott Stafford, a member of the Professional Standards Bureau, requesting to interview him. Stafford showed up at the Koken residence a half-hour later and spent the best part of the next hour talking with Koken about the "ditty" while recording the conversation. At one point Koken asked who generated the complaint and Stafford declined to say, even though Koken indicated the evidence suggested it was Mensinger. Stafford declined to confirm or deny.
A VERY CONCILIATORY DISCUSSION
Following the interview, during which Stafford was very professional, Koken showed him around and discussed his woodworking projects. It was all very conciliatory and after the tour Stafford left.
OH, YES... ANY GUNS?
An hour or so later Stafford called Koken and said, "I forgot to ask you one question. Do you have any firearms in the house?" Koken answered, "I don't publish that information."
ENTER THE LAWYER
Based on that last conversation Koken suspected there may be a search warrant in the offing, so he contacted an attorney and briefed him on the situation. He was told that no judge would issue such a warrant.
Koken subsequently told me of an attempt to intimidate Koken and compatriots as they sat behind a table in a booth at Fairview Park, collecting signatures on petitions for the Fairview Park Preservation Alliance. A Code Enforcement officer observed their signs from a distance, then drove into the park and stopped near the booth. She was observed photographing the signage, then approached the booth. She offered no criticism, nor did she cite them for any irregularity. When she was asked why she was there she told Koken and his associates that "the mayor had requested her to investigate them." As you might expect, this had a chilling effect on them and might have had an even more chilling effect on folks who might be inclined to sign the petition. And this is certainly another abuse of the mayor's power.
CONVERSATION WITH THE COPS
I've had a conversation with Koken and he also provided me with written details of these encounters. Subsequently I contacted members of the Costa Mesa Police Department to, 1) understand the process by which an officer would be dispatched to interview a resident and, 2) to find out who made the request. Following those conversations, including a very cordial, helpful and professional conversation with Chief Rob Sharpnack, I'm comfortable that the members of the CMPD involved simply followed the proper protocols. They received a complaint, investigated and, once the report is complete, it will be discussed with the District Attorney. And nobody is talking about who initiated the request. Apparently this information is only available after there is a resolution to the situation. Based on the circumstances portrayed to me by Koken, I suspect it was Mensinger, who has a long-established record of attempting to intimidate folks with opposing views - but don't know for sure. At some point in the near future a Public Records Request may be submitted to fully flesh-out this situation.
Do you recall the now-infamous Steven White case? White, an employee of The City, was accused of stealing campaign signs during an election in which Mensinger was running for City Council. That bogus claim cost White his job, but he was found not guilty of the alleged crime in court later. At the time Mensinger was apparently on a stakeout with a private detective observing whomever it was doing the sign theft. White has occasionally showed up at recent council meetings and is clearly not a happy man because of that situation.
TRYING TO SHUT ME UP
Some of you may recall the attempts by Mensinger and his pal, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, to intimidate me a few years ago. Each of them, individually, had an attorney - a guy who was married to Righeimer's sister-in-law at the time - write to me telling me I couldn't write about either of them in certain circumstances. Well, I understand a little about SLAPP suits and told him as much. I never heard from him again, but it's another good example of their attempts to intimidate opposing views.
DISCOURAGING PUBLIC COMMENTS
In fact, they have institutionalized the process in City Council meetings by bifurcating Public Comments - restricting the time during which folks can exercise their rights to air grievances to a short span at the beginning of meetings. Those remaining would be required to stay to the VERY end of the meetings - sometimes well after midnight - to express their views. Most do not, so that practice has been effective in quashing critics.
And, of course, there is the persistent practice by Righeimer, in particular, of interrupting speakers in the middle of their comments, spitting back jibes at them as they depart the speaker's podium and calling them out by name. They also use valuable time to rant on and on during Councilmember Comments to rebut critics. This kind of intimidation discourages some speakers from taking the time - and risk of ridicule - to address issues they feel are important in the community.
THEIR OWN PRIVATE MUSCLE
You may recall how Righeimer and Mensinger formed a special Code Enforcement unit to work on their own pet projects - like adding enforcement muscle to encourage owners of "problem motels" to "reassess the value of their properties" - which would make them available to their developer-buddies at a price that could guarantee a healthy profit. That Code Enforcement group has now been combined with the main group, but Mensinger apparently continues to use it as his own little private enforcement group.
WILLING TO ABUSE THEIR POWER
Righeimer and Mensinger have demonstrated throughout their political careers that they are more than willing to abuse their power, bend the rules and to intimidate folks who oppose them. Righeimer, in particular, will leap upon any pulpit he can find - radio, television or in the print media - to burnish his position. And, some of recall his very attempt to throw his weight around when, as a planning commissioner, he barged into the middle of a DUI Checkpoint, demanding answers.
A DELICIOUS IRONY
Here we have a situation where a member of the CMPD was dispatched based on "somebody's" claim that a misdeed - a threat - was done by Koken. Contrast this to the bogus lawsuit filed by Mensinger and Righeimer - a lawsuit that still lingers like a dark cloud over the city to this day - in which Righeimer was reported to be driving in a manner suggesting he was impaired - he did come from a bar, after all - and a member of the CMPD was dispatched to interview HIM. During that 90 second interview, Kha Bao, our most distinguished DUI officer, quickly determined that he was NOT impaired, apologized for the inconvenience and left. However, Righeimer and his wife still filed a lawsuit against the men and women of the CMPD.
LEGAL ACTION PENDING?
I find myself wondering if Koken is considering any kind of legal action against those responsible for this situation. It's my understanding that he's awaiting a return call from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
VOTERS BE ADVISED...
It is clear that powerful members of the elected leadership of this city continue to be ready, willing and able to throw their weight around to intimidate residents who choose to speak out or otherwise show disagreement with them. So, good people of Costa Mesa, be advised... as long as you elect folks like this to your city council you can expect intimidation and rule-bending.