Monday, August 29, 2011

Tad Friend's Great Costa Mesa Adventure**

"Costa Mesa has no apparent center: if there's a there here, it's unclear where." And so begins staff writer Tad Friend's article, Contract City, in The New Yorker magazine in its September 5, 2011 issue, on the news stands today. (AUDIO LINK BELOW)

Let me say right at the top that I think Friend did
an excellent job on his article. He spent a week out here from his home in Brooklyn researching this story. He provided a real flavor for what the city Costa Mesa has become and provides historical perspective of Orange County's roots and more recent history. He compares Costa Mesa to other contiguous cities - Irvine and Newport Beach and quotes Mayor Gary Monahan as saying, "When I first moved here, in 1987, I was always lost. You'd miss your turn and never get back."

went on to say, " Still, residents proudly define themselves in opposition to Orange County stereotypes, whether it's the tidy exurban monotony of Irvine, to the east, or the reality-show-ready opulence of Newport Beach, to the southwest. Pointing to their biker gangs and their barrio, Costa Mesans describe the city as diverse, tolerant, and - though it is heavily Republican - democratic."

In describing the current atmosphere in Costa Mesa, Friend said, "But City Hall is now under fire from the budget-slashing wing of the Republican establishment, in a war of words and pink slips reminiscent of an earlier anti-union era, when the Pinkertons battered the Wobblies with fists and clubs. One local Republican official invoked a grade-school indignity to explain the uprising, telling me, "The labor unions have done a masterful job of pantsing the taxpayer."

"In Costa Mesa, the budget battle was gladly taken up by a new city council, driven by Jim Righeimer, a backslapping real-estate developer whose burly physique and eagerness to scrap call to mind Friar Tuck." I'm sorry, but when I read that comment I got a HUGE smile on my face.

Quoting Monahan, "The fact that the unions went after Jim so hard, an
d the campaign was as dirty as it was, made it clear that we don't only have a budget problem; we have an attitude problem." Gee, Gary - no kidding! Although I suspect Monahan meant an "attitude problem" among the employees. I see it the other way - the attitude problem is among the majority on the city council.

Quoting non-elected councilman Steve Mensinger, Friend said, "Referring to the unions and workers associations that the city negotiates with, Mensinger told me, "I don't think the prisoners should be running the prison". Later, when describing the "chest-bumping" event at Estancia High School, Friend said, "Mensinger told me he'd expected resistance - "Bring it on!" - but predicted that it would dissipate if his team held the line in the red zone: "Politics is very similar to Pop Warner. People think they can bully you into making their son the quarterback, but once they realize their son's a lineman they stop bothering you." It is ironic, don't you think, that Mensinger's son is a quarterback? What's that message?

During a discussion of the number of u
nits proposed to be considered for outsourcing, Friend quote Righeimer as saying the following: "The more the merrier, Righeimer believed. He said, "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." Friend went on to say, " If you made government go away, you'd get rid of the problems it created, and the problems it was supposed to solve would take care of themselves."

Addressing some of the
concerns employees are expressing to him, he quotes long time employee and activist Billy Folsom: Billy Folsom, a Vandyke-bearded, steel-earring-wearing N.R.A. member who's been a mechanic for the city for thirty years, said that he and his friends were outraged by what they saw as the council's stealth attack on diversity, both social and economic. "What is our role here in a race to the bottom?" he wondered. "How much more do we let the middle class get slaughtered?" The fear, among unionists and many citizens, was that Righeimer's council would destroy the city in order to save it.

He leads off his discussion of Huy Pham w
ith the following: Then, on March 17th, one of the employees who had recently received a layoff notice - a twenty-nine-year-old maintenance worker named Huy Pham - jumped off the City Hall roof.

In a description of Huy Pham that may bring tears to the eyes of his family and associates, Friend went on to describe Pham's background, what an excellent worker he was, quoting other employees, like his supervisor, Doug Lovell. "Lovell, who was very fond of Pham, said, "He could build a house from the ground up, and he always had his eyes open for things that needed fixing." Friend described Pham's struggles - including quoting from a disciplinary hearing he had last year because he was found asleep on the job, which was apparently due to him trying to juggle more elements in his life than he could manage. "A model employee, he was stretched thin by the demands of work, his family business, and getting his contractor's license."

Friend also discussed Righeimer's reaction to Pham's death, questioning whether it was actually a suicide - suspecting it was an accident and, later, the act of a drug-addled worker. He quotes Righeimer as saying, "How do I know it was a suicide? Because there's no parapet on our roof, and he hit head first. Does that sound like a guy jumping? That sounds like a guy tripping."

Near the end of the article Friend talks about Righeimer calling him, urging him to put in a request for the coroner's report on Pham's death, stating "you need to see the toxicology." That report, the existence of which was reported by local newspapers, indicated that Pham had residue of a common metabolite of cocaine, which metabolizes quickly, so it was assumed that he took it more than two hours before his death. Friend concluded, "So when he stood atop the city's most public building he appears to have been under the influence only of his private concerns." Yep, that's what the final word on Pham's death said - he leaped.

Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) General Manager Nick Berardino is quoted extensively in the article. He was aghast when he heard of Pham's death. Friend quotes him as saying, "I'd never had a more sinking feeling," he said. "I was a machine gunner in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but this went beyond that. It brought home to me what's happening all over America - the vicious effect of the actions of a group of politicians who've demonized working people."

He later describes Berardino's visit to Monahan's bar, where the mayor was busily celebrating St. Patrick's Day - which Monahan described on camera as "The biggest day of my life"- and of Berardino sharing the photos he took of Monahan with the assembled media at City Hall. "Berardino showed the photographs to news crews at City Hall, and Monahan became the instant symbol of civic callousness, a conclusion that was helped along when Berardino funded Internet ads showing Monahan in his kilt. The council's attempt to shape an alternative message - no one had been laid off yet, and there was no way of knowing Pham's motivations - was crippled by its hapless press conference the following day. After Tom Hatch declared that Costa Mesa was going to be the nation's most transparent government, he and the council members declined to answer questions. TV reporters savaged an ashen Monahan - "Is there no one that will speak to the people of Costa Mesa?" "you should be ashamed of yourself, sir!" - as he and the others walked out."

Friend quotes former Interim Police Chief Steve Staveley - who's first day on the job the second time around was that fateful St. Patrick's Day - as he responded to Righeimer's version of the Pham death as follows: "Responding to Righeimer's imputations, the interim police chief, Steve Staveley, said, "I've been a policeman since these guys were playing in their sandbox at their mommy's house, and, with all respect to his elected position, he should educate himself before he starts shooting his mouth off. It's morally and ethically wrong."

Later, near the end of the article, Friend again quotes Staveley: "Just before the budget passed, Steve Staveley, the interim police chief, had abruptly turned in a resignation letter that riled everyone up again. The council, he wrote, has "in essence lied as they created the appearance of crisis in order to appear as the white knight to a narrow band of political followers." The members acted "as if they are owners of the business that is the municipal government of the City of Costa mesa, but they are not, they are merely trustees of these public assets, both human and physical, and they fail in that role completely. They are, in my opinion, incompetent, unskilled and unethical." Staveley was right on the money, both times.

Helping us understand the genesis of this ill-fated scheme, Friend addressed the issue of the influence Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh had on events in Costa Mesa. He said, "For Scott Baugh, chairman of Orange County's Republican Party, the outsourcing plan put forward by Jim Righeimer - with whom Baugh shares an office suite - was a long overdue attempt at fiscal sanity. In a speech last year, Baugh declared, "We're the most irresponsible generation this country has ever known... selfish, narcissistic, and dependent." and announced that he would no longer endorse any Republican who took campaign contributions from a union or voted for "outrageous" pension benefits."

Friend also included Costa Mesa resident and Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach in his piece and addressed his ill-fated, and very costly, attempt to rollback pension increases for deputy sheriffs. He went on to say, "But Moorlach remains willing to try almost anything to rein pension costs in. "The other radical idea is you just fire everybody and then rehire them as new employees at new tiers," he said, referring to contracts , now in place in Costa Mesa and many other cities, that provide lower benefits to new employees. he grinned and shrugged. "You're going to be in court on that one, too." he said."

Friend ended his piece by, again, referring to Righeimer. Here's his closing paragraph: "Righeimer noted that the Orange County Register carried a column that day about how Pham lived on as a martyr. The story concluded, "Some of his co-workers believe that Pham committed suicide to make a statement, and that he did it in a ceremonial fashion in keeping with his culture, taking off his shoes and neatly placing them to one side before jumping." There were no shoes on the roof, in fact, but regardless of that detail Righeimer dismissed the possibility that there was any foreign dynamic at work in his home town. "Oh, please," he said. "That's just bizarre. This is not some kid off the boat - he's an American."

I did not try to cover the entire article, but had to provide you with some pithy quotes to whet your appetite. I've tried to give you a little bit of the flavor of Tad Friend's article in The New Yorker. He also quotes councilwoman Wendy Leece, Finance Director Bobby Young, activist Greg Ridge and employee association President Helen Nenadal. I strongly suggest that you go find it on a news rack somewhere and spend a couple bucks to read in context. It's well worth the time and money. Or, you can do as I did - go online and subscribe to the magazine and have it available to you in ten minutes.

** Try this! HERE'S A LINK that should take you to a page where you can get 4 weeks FREE online access to The New Yorker. That should give you access to Tad Friend's article.

Tip of the hat to reader and commenter Gericault for a link, HERE, to a recent radio interview with Tad Friend on his article. This 17 minute snippet gives you a flavor for the content of the article and should make you want to find it and read every word.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

City Responds To Appeal Denial

Not unexpectedly, earlier this afternoon Costa Mesa's Interim Communication Director, Bill Lobdell, issued a press release addressing the denial by the 4th Appellate District Court of the City's writ of mandate petition.

In his press release Lobdell quotes Contract City Attorney, Tom Duarte, as saying, " Obtaining writ relief is difficult. It is even more difficult still where there is a right to appeal the original ruling, which is the case here. The City will now proceed with a formal appeal of the trial court's preliminary injunction ruling."

So, I guess we
just continue to chug along, having Contracting Committees evaluate RFPs and wait for the litigation on this issue to finally come to an end. I can almost hear the billing process for Jones & Mayer and the lawyers for the OCEA spinning like slot machines gone wild.

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Appellate Court Rejects Costa Mesa Petition

Jennifer Muir, Communications Director for the Orange County Employees Association, issued the following press release late this morning.

Appellate Court rejects Costa Mesa petition

SANTA ANA The Fourth District Court of Appeal on Thursday summarily denied the City of Costa Mesa’s Petition for a Writ of Mandate, which sought to dissolve a preliminary injunction halting the layoffs of more than 200 City employees.

Nearly half the City workforce received layoff notices on March 17 after the City Council majority voted to outsource their jobs. The Orange County Employees Association, on behalf of the Costa Mesa City Employees Association, commenced litigation in May that resulted the issuance of a preliminary injunction halting the layoffs and prohibiting the City from outsourcing to private contractors.

“Courts continue to reject any justification for the City Council majority’s outsourcing scheme,” said OCEA Communications Director Jennifer Muir. “We sincerely hope this latest rebuke by the Courts will motivate the Council to abandon its needless campaign against its employees and all the residents who have urged them to stop dismantling the City.”

“This is yet another outcome welcomed by City employees and the thousands of residents who have rallied to their support,” Muir said. “The City Council has shown its willingness to disregard both the law and it own policies. It’s time for them to stop wasting the City’s valuable resources pursuing this political agenda.”

The City’s request is attached. You can review and print the Court's "Disposition" from the following link:

One can assume that the injunction issued by Superior Court Judge Barbara Tam Nom
oto Schumann remains in force, and that the City of Costa Mesa MAY NOT proceed with layoffs as a result of their outsourcing plan until the case is heard in court.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Transparency "Conspiracy"?

You'll recall that I recently wrote, HERE, about the revelation announced by Costa Mesa Interim Communication Director, Bill Lobdell, that the City's web site had been evaluated by an industry "watchdog" as an "A+" - up from an "F". I was pretty excited to share that news with you because I'd observed many times in recent weeks that the city site was, in fact, much more easily-used and was packed with timely, useful information. Sometimes we didn't like some of the news presented in the flurry of press releases, but we were getting information, for sure.

I was not alone in that enthusiasm, as the Daily Pilot editors took the time to praise The City for this new accolade
, HERE. We - they and I - were almost giddy about this news.


Then came a grumbling... a comment was posted on the Daily
Pilot editorial and, almost simultaneously, on my blog, alerting us to the fact that the "watchdog" web site referred to was, in fact, a "wiki" site - one on which content could be provided by almost anyone, and that Lobdell may have been the provider of the information that subsequently garnered that lofty rating.

I followed the link and found that, sure enough, Lobdell HAD been the person who input the data on the site that changed the rating from an "F" to an "A+". However, I didn't see a problem here - as far as I could tell, there was no attempt to hide the fact that he did the input and, quite honestly, I thought this was a perfectly appropriate activity for a PR guy - as long as the information provided was accurate. It was a "non-issue" and I hadn't planned to comment on it.

Then, yesterday, I received an email from a guy named Andrew Glazer, a former Daily Pilot reporter who covered Costa Mesa in the 1990s - when Lobdell was the editor - and who apparently now is a producer for what's left of Dan Rather's career on HDNET. It turned out that he was the author of the blog comments on both the Daily Pilot and my blog alerting us to this fact. Separately, he had written to the Daily Pilot, chiding them for sloppy reporting. He said, in part, "It's a disservice to your readers to not have looked into the Web site you cited -- and the apparent impetus for your editorial. In your crusade for transparency, will you disclose this oversight and point out Lobdell's far-from-transparent attempts to burnish his town's image?" He provided me with a copy of that correspondence and we, he and I, exchanged comments back and forth.

And, still, I planned to not write anything about this because the information Lobdell provided to the Sunshine Review was accurate - he took an empty te
mplate (the reason for the "F") and filled in the blanks with accurate information. It seemed to me that Glazer's intrusion into this issue might be tinged with some personal animus from his time working at the Daily Pilot - maybe not, but I had a little whiff of that from the correspondence.

Then came a piece by Chasen Marshall in the OC Weekly today, HERE, in which he postulates that "Lobdell failed to include in the announcement was that Sunshine Review and its transparency grades lack any actual credibility", which changed my mind about commenting. That was followed shortly by a piece by Joe Serna in the Daily Pilot, HERE, addressing this subject. I knew that one was probably coming - I was quoted in it.


So, after all that preamble, here's my take on this. First, I see NOTHING wrong wi
th what Lobdell did. He's a PR guy, charged with "burnishing the image", to use Glazer's pejorative, of his client - the City of Costa Mesa. And, we all know that the image has needed a lot of burnishing lately - more than ever before in its history. Lobdell found a site that showed our city to be an "F" in "transparency", discovered it was because there was NO information in its data base, so did what he should have done - fixed that problem - he filled in the blanks.

Should he have
mentioned it in his press release? Probably. He could have said something like, "I found this watchdog site that inaccurately assessed Costa Mesa because there was no information in its data base, so I submitted accurate information, which resulted in this outstanding grade." - or words to that effect. But he didn't. And, following a lengthy conversation with him about this, I'm convinced that there was no "conspiracy". If there had been, he would have used another name to submit the information.


I know there will be an outcry from members of the public on this, but, in my opinion, it's a non-story. Quite the contrary, it's one more reason to compliment Lobdell and the rest of the city team for the efforts they are making toward CEO Tom Hatch's goal of "being the most transparent city in the country".

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Life or Death For Redevelopment Agency?

In a press release from Interim Communication Director Bill Lobdell this evening - too late to field questions - the Costa Mesa Redevelopment Agency announced that it will hold a special meeting this Friday, August 26th, at 4:30 in City Council Chambers at Costa Mesa City Hall.

According to the press release, this meeting is to determine whether to agree to pa
y the state about $1.4 million to keep the agency alive.


Legislation passed earlier this year to help close California's budget gap forces redevelopment agencies to pay the state if they want to continue to operate. The new state laws are being challenged in court, and the state Supreme Court agreed last week to hear the case.


This special meeting is needed because the legislation requires agencies , by Sunday, to adopt an "enforceable obligation payment schedule" for the rest of 2011.

Because this meeting is being held in council chambers during the normal workday we assume it will be televised live on CMTV beginning at 4:30.


Homeless Suicide In Fairview Park

In a curious event that occurred early in the afternoon yesterday, an apparently homeless man shot and killed himself while being detained by a Costa Mesa police officer on routine patrol of Fairview Park.


The 50 year-old
man, identified in an Orange County Register article, HERE, as David Gardner, was observed seated in the driver's seat of a 1990 blue Honda. The officer confirmed through a license check that there was an outstanding warrant for him. Gardner, while being detained outside the Honda, apparently bolted to the car, entered the passenger seat and displayed a handgun. Fearing for his safety the officer fired one shot, which missed, and Gardner then took his own life.


According to the police report, Gardner left a suicide note threatening to take his own life in Fairview Park in May of this year, but the police were unable to locate him because he was living in his car.


This sad and strange event is an exclamation point on the Costa Mesa homeless issue and may add even more urgency to the Costa Mesa Homeless Task Force as it goes about it's charter to "solve" the homeless problem in our city.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Outsourcing Jousting

It is with great interest that I read the recent exchanges of correspondence between City Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch and Helen Nenadal, President of the Costa Mesa City Employee's Association on the subject of outsourcing and City Council Policy 100-6. Most of that correspondence is available on the City web site, HERE, in "The Latest Headlines" block in the center of the home page. The relevant entries are listed as:

City to add employee association representatives to outsourcing process

Costa Mesa's response to employees' association 2nd letter regarding outsourcing process

CEO Hatch responds to latest association letter about outsourcing process

Latest exchange of letters bet
ween city, association regarding outsourcing (Aug. 19/Aug. 20)

It will be helpful for you
to read them in that order, but if you want to speed read to the end, read the latest letters.


My opinion, in a nutshell, is that now that City Council policy 100-6 has finally been unearthed and the City has agreed to stop the outsourcing process, recall the Requests for Proposals (RFPs), back up and begin anew following the guidelines provided by policy 100-6, all this arm-wrestling that's going on about who and how many representatives should be allowed to be on the Contracting Committees is counterproductive to resolving the issues at hand.

The bargaining
unit, through correspondence signed by Nenadal, demanded that outsiders be permitted to be members of the Contracting Committees. The City said "NO!" - correctly so, in my view. The bargaining unit, through Nenadal, demanded that she be a part of every Contracting Committee. Even though her participation is not prescribed by the policy, Hatch agreed to that demand. Again, I think this was a constructive step - one that should facilitate progress being made.

The City requested that parti
cipants on each of the first four Contracting Committees be identified by August 16th, the bargaining unit had not done so by August 20th. They need to understand that the ship is sailing and that the City is fulfilling its responsibilities under policy 100-6. If they don't jump aboard they will be left standing on the dock.

I know that Helen Nenadal did not write any of the correspondence in question. One must assume, since it's written on the letterhead of the Orange County Employees Association, that members of that organization composed the letters for her signature. That is even more clear when you realize they misspelled her name on the first couple of letters. I don't have any problem with someone else writing those letters for Nenadal. I have a problem with the obstinance in the letters.

Anyone watching this drama for the past six months understands that the
current City Council messed this up big time. They - led by the impatient political opportunist, Jim Righeimer and his non-elected pal, Steve Mensinger - went off half-cocked on the outsourcing issue and the results were turmoil among the employee ranks - rightfully so, in my view - a young man leaping to his death from the roof of City Hall and a tsunami of local, regional, national and international media attention that has brought only shame and infamy to our city.

As w
e now know, it didn't have to be this way. If the council majority had not been trying to force-feed a political agenda and augment a political resume this issue could, and should, have been managed in a more business-like manner. The City - inexplicably - didn't turn up Council Policy 100-6 until this majority had already incurred more legal difficulties for The City. Those difficulties are far from over.


Whether Righeimer, Mensinger and the rest of the council majority messed up now is alm
ost moot. We are now back at square one and the employees should recognize this as an opportunity and, hard as it might be, to try to put all the bad feelings aside for a moment and work in good faith on each of these Contracting Committees. Those discussions may result in decisions they are not happy with, but that can be dealt with downstream. Right now, in my opinion, it is important to participate in good faith - to bring the best authoritative perspective to the deliberations that is possible - and move forward from there. To do less will cost them dearly in the hearts and minds of the residents of this city - in my opinion.

Let me be clear. I think the tactics employed by both sides on this issue left much to be desired. Certainly, the haste with which this council majority has tried to disassemble this city is unforgivable. However, the tactics employed by the OCEA and their shell front organization, Repair Costa Mesa, irritate the heck out of me. I'm so sick of seeing those pervasive pop-up adds on my computer and on cable television... And the whole "sign" drama is getting very old, too. And the distasteful manipulation of children in this process should give any parent watching some pause about the men who would permit and encourage these actions.

In my opinion, it's time to wipe the blood off the knives, let some of the woun
ds heal and for both sides to meet in good faith to assess the RFPs as prescribed by policy 100-6. It's time to make this process work, and to tone down the rhetoric, if possible. As I write those words I know that I will NOT stop writing about malfeasance, vindictiveness and stupidity as I perceive it. However, public urinating contests from the dais and the speaker's podium are not helping get the issues resolved. I do understand the passion of the issue - livelihoods are at stake - but there is now an opportunity in hand to potentially create a better outcome.

So, let's see if this process can work. We're going to know soon enough - it won't take too many meetings before the employees and The City have a sense of how things are going. Since the rules of conduct of the meetings preclude any outsiders - like me, for example - from being there and, according to Hatch's most recent letter, disclosure of confidential information from the meetings is discouraged, we'll just have to sit patiently and wait for progress reports from the inner sanctum. I'm willing to do that, keeping my fingers crossed that progress can be made. Now, let's get on with it...

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