Well, that was fun! The eighth Feet To The Fire Forum is in the can and it was a hoot! Costa Mesa Television (CMTV) was on hand to film the event and it will be available for viewing via streaming video and in the regular play list early next week. I'll let you know the schedule and provide you with the link when it's available. It will be worth the 90 minutes it takes to watch it. You can also read Nick Gerda's account of the evening in the Voice of OC, HERE, for more details.**Note: Our friends at KOCI radio broadcast the event live and have the recorded audio available for your listening pleasure HERE.
Held at a terrific venue - the Robert B. Moore Theatre on the campus of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa - this event had all the elements we've come to expect from Barbara Venezia and her crew and more! The questioning was focused and Venezia ran a tight ship, not letting speakers stray too far afield with their answers. And some of the sparring between candidates was "spirited", to say the least.
GOOD, EXCEPT FOR THE HECKLER
The venue seemed perfect for this event. The auditorium holds 900 people and I think it was about one-third full. The lighting was good, the sound was good and the crowd was both attentive and, at times, raucous. Unfortunately, one woman - sitting about four rows directly behind me - threw a little damper on the event as she heckled and shouted out through most of the meeting. I couldn't identify her, but those who had close contact with her trying to get her to be more respectful said she was probably drunk... she sounded like it, anyhow.
PARTISANS IN THE CROWD
The crowd was filled with partisans for many of the candidates. Based only on a couple of outbursts I'd have to say Jay Humphrey had the most supporters in the room, although both Tony Capitelli and Chris Bunyan evoked some cheers, too. Only Mayor Jim Righeimer seemed to generate jeers from the crowd. Al Melone, Lee Ramos and Rita Simpson evoked few cheers from the crowd.
The format was pretty free-flowing, with Venezia and her cohorts - Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis, Daily Pilot City Editor Alicia Lopez and Voice of OC Managing Editor Norberto Santana, Jr. sharing the questioning. Orange County Register columnist, Jack Wu, is honeymooning and didn't make this event.
RAMOS A SURPRISE
SIMPSON DID BETTER, BUT WAS NEXT-TO-LAST
FOCUS ON RIGHEIMER
Righeimer had lots of answers but, from the tone of the crowd, I'd have to say that most were not persuaded by his answers on many issues. He was pretty thoroughly pummelled throughout the evening. It only took six minutes before he attacked absent candidate Katrina Foley during the question about housing density. He fell into his chant about previous councils "blowing through reserves" shortly thereafter with a predictability that is astounding.
"I'LL REST ON MY RECORD"... GREAT!
It appeared that Righeimer had the toughest time last night. He's the only candidate in attendance with a track record and, as a result, many of the questions about municipal subjects were those he's either presently dealing with or has been responsible for. I was not surprised that the questions seemed to be tightly focused on him for awhile.
PLANNED OCC EXPANSION
Righeimer was asked about the planned Orange Coast College expansion - he recently made a big deal about it and held a community meeting on the driveway of a home near the campus. He said he'd met with OCC President Dennis Harkins and has no problem with the expansion as long as it stays within the footprint of the college. Jay Humphrey observed that the City has no authority on this issue, and that the college had three community meetings and had actually listened to the concerned of contiguous residents and were working to resolve those concerns. Righeimer tried to interrupt him - again, quite predictably.
HUMPHREY CORRECTS THE RECORD
On the issue of the Santa Ana/Colleen Island annexation and related development within that island - another recent hot-button issue - Righeimer tried to dance around the issue, indicating that the city didn't even have a development plan before it yet. He tried to deflect criticism of the 6,000 square foot lot size vs. the county 7,200 minimum by stating - without attribution - that Newport Beach just did a similar process. During the discussion Humphrey reminded him and the audience that the developer had been working with the City for TWO YEARS on their plan before the annexation was broached!
60TH DEBACLE - RIGHEIMER TRIES TO DODGE IT
Santana brought up the now-notorious 60th Anniversary debacle and wondered "what went wrong"? Specifically, he brought up the settlement with former Public Affairs Manager Dan Joyce, who had been on paid administrative leave for most of a year before receiving a settlement of $170,225 recently. Righeimer attempted to deflect responsibility for the mess, indicating that a senior finance person violated the policy by approving payments without proper authorization. This is NEW information to most following the issue and made us curious about just whom Righeimer meant with that accusation, and what action, if any, is being taken on that front. He also said the settlement was approved on a 5-0 vote, which would have occurred during a closed session. He said proper procedure was not followed. (I found myself thinking about HIS mess with the 200+ layoff notices that were issued by not following proper procedure).
Capitelli indicated he didn't have enough facts to offer a valid opinion. Ramos said it was carelessly done.
Lopez brought up the subject of sports fields and Fairview Park. Ramos, who is a member of the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee, almost knocked me out of my chair when he said he'd like to see the park stay the way it is!
The question of restoring the old method of managing Public Comments at council meetings was broached. Bunyan blamed it squarely on Righeimer, who tried to justify bifurcating the comments segment by indicated that people waiting to do business before the council shouldn't have to wait until after midnight! The crowd was not happy about that answer. Humphrey referred to his previous tenure on the council and said, "we never had that kind of a problem." Bunyan, Capitelli and Humphrey indicated the change should be reversed.
The subject of Rehab Homes took a lot of discussion. Righeimer mentioned that Newport Beach has already spent over $3 million on it and it's still not finished. Venezia asked the panel what they would do. Bunyan mentioned the City of Orange ordinance. Righeimer said there's an ordinance coming before the Planning Commission next week that will begin to address the issue, but that folks in rehab facilities are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so lawsuits are sure to follow. Humphrey reminded Righeimer that Wendy Leece had proposed an ordinance like that in Orange two years ago, but the council chose not to do anything with it. Venezia observed that Costa Mesa seemed not to learn from Newport Beach's problem and speculated that the cities should have combined their efforts on the subject. Ramos indicated that the subject was fracturing the city and that we need to come together to resolve it. Well, duh, Lee! Capitelli was concerned about acting in haste and fighting a losing battle.
COPS AND FIRE
Next up was the subject of Public Safety - specifically, the Costa Mesa Police Department. Canalis prefaced it with a summary of the current status of the CMPD - 108 sworn officers out of an authorized strength of 136 and only 50 on patrol. Humphrey corrected the record, indicating that of those 108 officers, at least 16 are out injured. He also observed that the hostile attitude between the CMPD and the council majority has created many departures. Righeimer brushed off the "50 on patrol" as always being at that level. Bunyan mentioned the lack of lateral transfers into the CMPD, also blaming the hostile work environment. Melone expressed concern that by 2015 we would only have a bunch of rookies on the CMPD. It was also observed that many of the speciality units - Vice, K-9 and Narcotics have been de-staffed. Nobody had a quick solution to the issue except to move more quickly with the staffing problem and to change the toxic atmosphere so lateral transfers could be attracted.
Canalis asked Righeimer why, in the interest of harmony, did he and others not just drop the lawsuit against the CMPOA. Righeimer said he just wanted to get the parties to be deposed under oath. He said that the police association had hired a private detective to catch a council member in a compromising situation as a move of EXTORTION! Well, I'm thinking that there really has been NO evidence to that fact and that he might just have put his foot into his mouth. I'm sure members of the CMPOA will be watching that tape next week to affirm what he said, and what legal remedies might be appropriate.
The question of pension sustainability was broached. Most candidates agreed that it was not sustainable, but none offered workable solutions. Santana postulated that spending 65% of the budget on safety positions was extreme. Most agreed. Ramos said he thought 80% was more realistic! What? Humphrey indicated that CalPERS had high returns the past two years, which was helping to resolve the unfunded pension liability. Righeimer observed that only when cities began to file for bankruptcy would the State do something about it. Did we mention that his Pension Committee has already had a workshop on municipal bankruptcy? Ramos suggested four possible solutions: 1) Raise taxes; 2) get Sacramento to work on it; 3) Use Bonds and 4) Increase property taxes. Melone felt current employees needed to pay more.
Homeless was up next. Lopez wondered what happened to the proposal to create transitional housing at Civic Center Park. Capitelli, who deals with homeless issue, said the city blew it when considering it because it was not zoned for that kind of use. He said Mercy House has identified 10 locations in the city that would work, but couldn't identify even one of them. Humphrey mentioned converting existing motels - or portions of them - into Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units for transitional housing. Capitelli said the issue is complicated. Righeimer mentioned the facilities that attract homeless folks here - the food and medical care outlets. Melone said we need to work on the mental illness issue.
LABOR AND STREET SWEEPING
The subject of the recent labor agreement was discussed and Santana wondered if it was all worth it just to outsource street sweeping? Righeimer defended the agreement, indicating that millions will be saved. He said the average salary for miscellaneous employees is $105,000, then amplified that it included all benefits, including health and retirement.
A GOOD EVENT, WITH BULLYING AS AN EXCLAMATION POINT
When the evening ended most folks with whom I spoke, or overheard, seemed to agree that it was a success. Righeimer's little knot of supporters were NOT happy with the evening. In fact, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger was observed raking Lopez over the coals. Remember two years ago when Marnie Primmer - the moderator at the Eastside forum - was chastised for aggressive questioning of Mensinger. What is it with these guys? Twice now they've picked out the woman in the group to chastise! If this was the NFL they'd be benched or fired, for goodness sake!
HERE YOU GO...
1) Humphrey - we liked his maturity and reasoned responses
2) Bunyan - for his challenging of Righeimer all night and solid responses
3) Capitelli - for his calm demeanor and preparedness
4) Righeimer - because the other three below were so much worse
5) Melone - ranked low because of the strange things he comes up with
6) Simpson - finally, not the worst candidate on the dais
7) Ramos - because he is...
Kudos to Barbara Venezia and her team for an excellent forum. We're glad we attended and learned a lot. We suspect most in the audience felt the same way. Oh, yes - thanks to those of you who sought me out to say hello last night. It's always nice to meet the readers...
NEXT UP - THE EASTSIDE FORUM
I look forward to the next candidate forum early next month. My friends of the Eastside Costa Mesa Neighbors Group also put on a good event. We know Ramos won't be there, but the question is, will Righeimer show up?