Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Little Budget Followup

Last Tuesday night the Costa Mesa City Council passed a municipal budget that came in right at $140,000,000 - up 6.33% from the fiscal year that ends ten days.  And, the budget is balanced.  You can read that staff report HERE.  You can also watch the streaming video of the meeting HERE.  Just use the "jump to" feature to be taken directly to the beginning of the budget discussion.

Part of that budget was $19,421,001 in Capital Improvement Projects - things like street improvements and storm drain replacements and the like.  There are 84 projects on the list shown as Attachment 2, HERE.  Of those, only 40 were recommended by Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch for inclusion in the new budget based on input from staff, the Parks and Recreation Commission and the City Council during a recent Study Session.  Those 40 items are shown highlighted in yellow on that exhibit.  Each line item is numbered for easy reference.  The far right column shows the recommended items and the funding necessary to complete each one.

However, the meeting Tuesday night was the last chance council members had to massage the document.  They couldn't increase the budget, but they could suggest shifting dollars and that's exactly what Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger did when, at 02:32.00 on the timer, he suggested that items numbers 3, 4 an 5 be included in the budget.  Those items are:
3 - California Avenue Median Improvements - $69,000
4 - Gisler Avenue Parkway Improvements - $100,900
5 - Mesa Verde Drive Median Improvements - $444,000

Those improvements total $613,900. 

Sandra Genis found this proposal outrageous - as did many in the audience -  because the Mesa Verde Medians have recently been rehabilitated - she specifically mentioned that the new trees are barely taking hold at this point.  Mensinger said he wants to see drought tolerant plantings there and, during the discussion, it was not clear if the trees currently in place could be salvaged and, if so, would they tolerate a more arid plant mixture with them.

When asked where he would get the money to make those improvements Mensinger said it should come from line #57 - Neighborhood Community Center - Library Development, which is budgeted for $1,000,000.  Theoretically, that's seed money to pay architects to come up with a workable plan for the scheme to turn the Neighborhood Community Center into a Library and convert the existing Donald Dungan Library into a community meeting facility.  His proposal would use 60% of the money in that item and gut that fund, leaving less than $400,000 for that item.  When the motion was made Genis pushed back and made a substitute motion to approve the budget as submitted.  That was defeated, 3-2, with Genis and Wendy Leece voting affirmatively and the male majority voting no.  When Mensinger's motion was called it passed, 3-2, with Genis and Leece voting no.

Now, I'm all for a balanced budget and one that grew more than 6% from last year shows me a healthy economy.  I know the staff spent hundreds of hours refining the budget based on a variety of input and lots of analysis by Interim Finance Director Steve Dunivent and his staff.  I know much anguish went into culling the Capital Improvement Budget - fewer than half the proposed projects were included in the budget.  If all 84 had been included it would have cost more than $28 million, not $19.4 million.

So when Mensinger decides arbitrarily - because "people have been talking with me for years" about the improvements he wanted to include - to add improvements in HIS part of town and, specifically, the main approach to HIS neighborhood, it just strikes me as an arrogant disregard of the hard work and process that was followed and an abuse of the power of his position.

Look down that list at the items NOT highlighted in yellow.  You'll see many worthy projects that might have been included.  For example, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the shortage of lighted fields in our city, yet item # 55, Kaiser School - Lighting Feasibility Study and #60, Parsons School Field Lighting were not included.  Genis pointed out that if they were to be juggling dollars, #45, Fairview Park Bluff Stairs (South) and #46, Fairview Park Bluff Repair (West), should be considered for community safety reasons.  And, much to do has been made of the shabby condition of several of our Fire Stations, but items #70, 71, 72, 75, 76 and 77, which addressed many of those issues, were not included.

The fact that Mensinger chose - and his fellow members of the majority concurred - to go for the frills instead of the critical repairs gives you an idea of what's important to them.  The safety of the public is way, way down their list.

And, it would have been amusing if not so serious, when Hatch offered up some of his $1,000,000 contingency fund (He's the only City Manager who EVER had that kind of discretionary dollars to play with), Righeimer immediately slammed that door.  He's been using that contingency fund for pet projects every year since he's been in office.

During the upcoming campaign season - we'll know exactly who is running for the two open City Council seats and who is not on August 8th - we're going to hear a lot of rhetoric Righeimer and his pals about what a great job of fiscal management Righeimer and his cronies have done.  Presumed candidate and majority sycophant Lee Ramos is already chanting that mantra every time he speaks anywhere.  What you won't hear is that they paved streets instead of funding public safety positions.  You won't hear them tell you that they cut staff and replaced them with consultant cronies and campaign contributors.  They won't be telling you about the astronomical legal fees we've seen ever since Righeimer took office.  You won't hear about the thousands of dollars the City had to spend rehabilitating the area where the illegal decomposed granite trail in Fairview Park was stealthily installed and the resultant ill-will the City incurred with the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife because of it.  And you surely won't hear them talk about their biggest shiny object - the infamous 60th Anniversary Celebration, that cost more than a half-million dollars and the costs and culpability are still not sorted out a year later.  Nope, you're not going to hear about that.

These are issues that need to be thoroughly vetted during the campaign.  There will be at least a couple campaign forums at which questions about some of those issues may be addressed.  I sure hope so.  The answers are too important to the future of the city to be ignored.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Costa Mesa Police Seize Illegal Fireworks

The following is the text of a press release issued by the Costa Mesa Police Department about the seizure of a trailer full of illegal fireworks in our city.  Great job to all involved, especially to the person who reported this activity.  The first week of July may be just a little less like a war zone this year.

Police seized a U-Haul trailer filled with illegal fireworks; Orange County Bomb Squad to examine explosives today at 3 p.m.
Posted Date: 6/20/2014
From Costa Mesa Police Lt. Greg Scott:
Shortly before 8 p.m. last night, police officers responded to the parking lot behind Newport Liquor at 2200 Newport Blvd. regarding the report of a male selling fireworks out of a red pick-up truck with a U-Haul trailer attached to it.
antonio-arellanoOfficers met with 51-year-old Antonio Arellano near his red Dodge Durango with its attached trailer. Officers learned Arellano was selling illegal fireworks to local minors. Officers located over 500 pounds of illegal fireworks inside Arellano’s trailer. Arellano had paid $2,000 for the fireworks in Pahrump, Nevada prior to transporting them into California to sell. Arellano was arrested for sales of dangerous fireworks to minors, and later booked at Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.

Costa Mesa fire investigators confiscated Arellano’s truck and the attached trailer containing the fireworks. An inventory showed the trailer contained over 500 pounds of dangerous fireworks, which included approximately 300 mortars, 300 aerial fireworks, 300 Roman candles, 3,600 bottle rockets, 40 large sky rockets, over 600 M-150 type explosives, and over 11,000 firecrackers.
Disposal of the explosives is scheduled for today at 3 p.m. at Costa Mesa Fire Station No. 4 at 2300 Placentia Ave.
For further information, contact Battalion Chief Tim Vasin at 714-754-5204 or Communications Director Bill Lobdell at 949-887-2541.

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Eastside Neighbors Host A Picnic!


Time slipped past and I almost forgot to remind you and my Eastside Costa Mesa neighbors of the picnic being hosted by the Eastside Costa Mesa Neighbors Group this Sunday.  It's a nice, casual, neighborly kind of event.  Click on their announcement below to enlarge it.  See you there.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Senior Center Update

 OK, I WENT...
Today, after a week of folks yapping at me because I chose not to immerse myself personally in the drama that is the Costa Mesa Senior Center, I decided to drive across town and visit the building to see, first hand, just what was going on.

I arrived in the early afternoon and found peace, quiet and apparent contentment among the handful of seniors visiting the Center.  As I walked past the counter just inside the door I saw Executive Director Aviva Goelman visiting with the attendant.  I know Aviva casually because a neighbor is her good friend, so I see her around my neighborhood occasionally.  We have a cordial and friendly relationship.

I told Aviva I was there to snatch up one of those free memberships, so she pointed me across the room to the library where members of the City staff were set up.  I approached the first young woman I encountered, told her my mission and she promptly signed me up - took my name, address and telephone number for "the list".  When I asked her if that meant I was now signed up as a member of the Senior Center she, surprisingly, told me no.  I was now on the list the City was accumulating for when they took over operations of the Center on September 7th.  I was told that the Senior Center staff refused to share the membership list with the City staff, so they had to build a data base from scratch.  That seemed curious to me.

I asked if I was now eligible to take part in Senior Center activities this summer, during the transition.  I was told I'd have to check with the Senior Center Staff, but I was invited to join the festivities on July 3rd, when the City staff would be hosting the annual celebration.  Another curious fact.

So, I wandered back to the counter and asked Aviva about the membership issue.  She told me that they couldn't share the membership list because it had personal information on it.  I wondered, but didn't ask, if that was not a problem that could be easily remedied by redacting personal information.

I was also told that there was no longer split pricing on events and activities.  No longer do "members" pay less than non-members.  All the prices are the same - the member price.  And, Aviva told me that all members who had renewed their memberships in April or later would have those fees refunded to them.  That seemed like a good idea.

As I stood there chatting the new Interim Manager, Eloisa Espinoza, walked past, returning from her lunch break.  Aviva pointed her out, so I set out in hot pursuit to chat with her about the Center, her assignment and the transition.

I followed in her wake to her workspace in the library - the City staff has carved out temporary work space in that room for the time being.  I found her to be a lovely woman with many years experience operating a similar facility in Fullerton.  She confirmed that my "new" membership was NOT a membership to the Senior Center.  I was just on a list of folks that will become the core of the City's membership roster in September.

We talked about the transition, which certainly appears to be marked with tension on both sides.  I could almost taste it as I spoke with staff members on both sides.  Both sides continue to tell me they only want what's best for the seniors, but, in my opinion, for that to happen there needs to be immediate interaction by them to facilitate that transition.

Let me state here that I'm still angry about the way this has been handled, and where the City thinks it has the authority to take over the Senior Center, but it's becoming more clear each day that this change IS GOING TO HAPPEN, so all parties need to attempt to make it work - and soon.

I was told that Ms. Espinosa and Penny Loomer - also an interim manager in the Recreation Division - will meet early next week with Aviva to begin this process in earnest.  This is good news.

Later I learned that, although there are extremely critical and time-sensitive issues to be addressed by the current Senior Corporation Board dealing with the transition and possible dissolution of the corporation, there is NO MEETING PLANNED until August!  In my view, that's unacceptable.  There is so much going on that needs Executive direction - including the retention of programs; integration of new ones; the future of the staff; the transition to the new organization and the future of the corporation - that the Board should be meeting MORE often, not less, for goodness sake.

As I left I spoke with the new contract security guard, who works five days a week at the Center.  I asked him if he'd had to bust any heads of rowdy seniors since he started to work.  He smiled and said he had not, but he had called the police a couple times when transients refused to move away from the facility.  In recent months the facility has become a destination for more than a few homeless folks, which caused safety issues for the senior center members.  The presence of a full-time security presence seems like a good idea.

Later I contacted Senior Corporation Board President Judy Lindsay and told her of my visit.  She'd already had a report.  She's fully immersed in proceeding with plans to access if, and how, the Senior Corporation Board should be dissolved and has formed an ad hoc committee to work on that issue.  The Board is still working on their strained relationship with the City leadership, establishing ground rules and trying to set aside the animosity that exists and make this transition as smooth as possible.

I also spoke on a conference call with CEO Tom Hatch and his assistant CEO, Tammy Letourneau.  I told them of my visit and gave them my opinions - for what they are worth.  Since this change is going to take place, both sides need to make it work smoothly so the seniors can get some peace of mind and the programs can continue uninterrupted.  There are financial and administrative issues that MUST be addressed - contract transfers, employee departures, etc.  Hopefully, those can begin at that meeting next week.  Both affirmed their commitment to the well-being of the seniors of this city.

According to Letourneau, 416 individuals have been signed up on the City list so far.  And, 115 have signed up for the July 3rd Independence Day event that the City salvaged from the scrap heap during the turmoil about the takeover of the Center.  Both of those numbers are good news and probably give a good indication of the renewed interest and confidence in this change.

The sad part about this drama is that it probably didn't have to happen this way.  The ham-handed, unilateral way the decision was made by the City to take over the Senior Center - yes, Wendy, it IS a hostile takeover - has exacerbated an already tense situation.  The staff of the Senior Center all know they will be losing their jobs, so many of them are actively looking for other full-time employment.  This is, at least, a distraction to providing services.  That being said, in my opinion, they - starting with and guided by the leadership of Aviva Goelman - need to work hard with the new City staff to blend programs.  And the Senior Corporation Board needs to focus on the important issues facing them - both fiscal and administrative - and hold whatever number of meetings are necessary to make this transition work.  To do less will violate their fiduciary responsibility and certainly contribute to the apprehension by senior center members and the staff on both sides of the equation.

I doubt it's possible, but the Draft Agreement, HERE, attached to the staff report for the meeting on June 10th seemed - with the exception of the controversial request for indemnification - to be an excellent transition document.  I don't know if that's on the table or not, but even if it's not, the procedures outlined in it could make for a clear road map for the transition.  Both sides should consider the process defined in it, whether codified or not.

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CMPD Issues Fireworks Safety Reminder

Today Public Information Officer Lieutenant Greg Scott of the Costa Mesa Police Department issued a safety warning for the use of fireworks over the upcoming holiday.  The advice provided in the announcement - reproduced in its entirety below - has some excellent common-sense advice PLUS some rules of law that must be followed.

Long-time readers know I'm not a fan of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks in our city.  I believe we should have a community event with a big fireworks show with most displays/explosions visible from most of the City.  However, after fighting this battle for years, I'm giving up.  Nope, I'm afraid it's going to take a tragedy to swing folks toward my view on this one.

So, please follow the guidelines listed below, have fun and BE SAFE.  In our experience, it's usually not the kids that are the problems with fireworks - it's thoughtless, sometimes half-drunk, adults.

Enjoy the holiday and, sometime on Friday, July 4th, try to remember what you're celebrating.

(Click on the image below for easier reading, or view it on the web HERE.)

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Budget, Development, Late Hours And "F" Bombs

As I begin to write this the sun has not yet begun to rise, but it's not far off.  It took me awhile to clear my head after the Costa Mesa City Council meeting Tuesday night/Wednesday morning before I felt composed enough to begin hammering this out.  The meeting, which began promptly at 6, didn't end until 12:59 a.m. today, Wednesday.

There's no easy way to begin this except to start at the beginning and just plow my way through it.  I'll give you the short version of events this time.  Each element had its own little dramatic moment.

Mayor Jim Righeimer announced that he had 23 Public Comment cards, which meant the first 10 - after he shuffled them - would speak early and the remainder would speak at the VERY end of the meeting if they had the fortitude to stick it out.  Al Melone spoke about the Dog Park.  Someone named Pamela Wilson griped about receiving a "union" mailer against the Charter and sounded for all the world like a Tea Partier.  Two teenage girls spoke about alcohol awareness programs.  Jeff Arthur echoed Wilson and expressed dismay about dishonesty and propaganda.  James Bridges thanked CEO Tom Hatch and Police Chief Tom Gazsi for visiting his neighborhood to offer condolences to the family of Kyle Johnson, who died in a traffic accident in Arizona Sunday.   

Beth Refakes reported on the Military Affairs Team's visit to the headquarters of our adopted Marine unit, the 1/5.  Harold Weitzberg spoke about development and the lack of affordable housing. Cindy Brenneman asked for the meeting to be adjourned in honor of Kyle Johnson.  Teresa Drain expressed concern about the lingering questions surrounding the 60th Anniversary Celebration scandal.  Cindy Black told the mayor he should quit trying to run Costa Mesa like a Charter city, and used a box prop to make a point.  At the end an unidentified woman walking with a cane attempted to speak but Righeimer shut her down because only 10 people could speak.  The woman and her husband then left, not being able to wait until what would have been well after midnight.  The crowd boo'd the mayor.

During Councilmember Comments Wendy Leece spoke about Save Our Youth (SOY), the Relay for Life event last weekend, Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, the 1/5 Marines and Lorna Lyttle, our deployed Park Ranger.  Gary Monahan had nothing to say.  Righeimer whined about having to run his meeting in defense of his rejection of the earlier speaker.  Steve Mensinger spoke of infrastructure improvements.  Sandy Genis spoke about Middle Class Taxpayers in response to earlier speaker's criticism of the anti-Charter mailers.

During his segment Hatch spoke about the $4.4 million in Capital Improvement projects, including streets and alleys, which he described as great community assets.  He and Director of Public Services Ernesto Munoz talked about successes with street and alley paving, indicating that our current status on the Pavement Condition Index is now 84.9 compared to  a much lower number a couple years ago.

Because it was not yet 7:00, Righeimer permitted two more Public Comment speakers - Gay Royer spoke of unacceptable traffic on the "Victoria Freeway" on the Westside and Tamar Goldmann spoke of the mandatory alcohol service training.

The first Public Hearing was the Annexation of the so-called Santa Ana/Colleen tract - 14 acres of county land that is about to be annexed from the county into Costa Mesa, which already provides most essential services.  Eight (8) people spoke on this issue, including many residents.  Most were enthusiastic about the annexation, but were very concerned density, lot size and losing the character and quality of life that exists in their little enclave now.  During the subsequent discussion spot zoning came up.  When Righeimer said the newly-annexed parcels would be subject to our current R-1 zoning, which meant 6,000 square foot minimum lot sizes and smaller setbacks a discussion ensued in which Genis reminded the mayor of the inconsistency being followed applying the rules and cited 125 East Baker Street and other recent developments.   Righeimer moved to approve the item.  Genis offered a substitute motion to have staff study the various questions and bring it back because there really is no rush.  That went down in flames on a 3-2 vote - she and Leece voted yes.  Monahan offered another substitute motion to expand the lot size to 6,600 square feet and it passed, 3-2.

After a 15 minute break - during which Righeimer found himself in intense conversation with residents of the annexation community, the council tackled the next two items on the agenda, both of which dealt with the budget.  The first one, the Appropriation Limit, passed, 5-0 after almost no discussion.

The Budget discussion lasted longer and would have passed in short order except that Mensinger wanted medians and other work completed in his neighborhood, Mesa Verde, so he asked for over $600,000 be shifted from the $1 million earmarked for library issues and shoved aside Genis comments about needing to fix the air conditioning at the Royal Palm fire station and other maintenance items there for less than $100,000.  Talk about screwed-up priorities.  During the public comments City Council candidate Lee Ramos stepped up for one of his very infrequent trips to the speaker's podium to thank the council for its hard work, recited what sounded very much like a stump speech.  He and his conjoined twin, Dennis Popp, departed immediately after this segment of the meeting.  Must have been bed time for them both.  In any event, the budget passed with Mensinger's amendments, 3-2, with Leece and Genis voting no.  So, off we go with a $140,000,000 budget, including another $1,000,000 slush, er, contingency fund.

At 9:20 the council began discussing Public Hearing #4, the 28-unit development on Harbor Boulevard and Hamilton Street which backs up to noisy, dirty, loud industrial uses.  Thirteen (13) people spoke on the issue - all against it.  However, the high (or low, depending on you viewpoint) came when long time businessman Tim Lewis spoke.  He tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the council that this was a bad project at that location.  In frustration, at the end of his time, twice he hurled the "F" Bomb at Righeimer, wadded up some of his papers and threw them toward the dais and said, "Go to hell, you bastards!  I'll see you at the polls!" Police officers in attendance calmed him down as other speakers stepped up.

After the applicant made his presentation the council debated the value of the project.  Righeimer used the current buzz phrase, "Moving Forward" and the "Brand is Strong" as he forced the vote, which ended up passing, 3-2.  Leece and Genis voted no.

At just before 11:00 the discussion turned to New Business #1, the extension and amplification of the contract for the consultant working with the City on the General Plan Update.  It passed, 5-0.

New Business #2 was a screening request for a project on West 19th Street at Wallace Avenue replacing a home and pawn shop with five condominium units.  After a half-hour discussion it was moved forward in the process.

At 11:20 discussion began on New Business #3, the screening request for the 176 ownership units  on 9 acres bordered 17th Street, Pomona Avenue and Superior Avenue.  Fifteen (15) people spoke on the project, including a steady stream of like-minded young people, all in their late 20's to early 30's, who sounded very much like they were reading the same playbook.  In fact, one other speaker made a similar observation.  These guys all arrived together and were hanging out together during the meeting.  And, some of their names were included in the letters supporting the project that looked very much like canned responses.  Eventually, at 12:45 a.m., the project- which Righeimer described as the "tipping point" of Westside development - was moved along.

This provided time for the "leftover" speakers from Public Comments to address the council.  Flo Martin raked the council over the coals for recent actions and whining about a Democratic-controlled state legislature, then pointed to the dais where only Republicans reside.

Jay Humphrey, a former councilman and announced candidate for that office this year, apologized for an earlier outburst against Righeimer, whom he chided for misrepresenting facts about development throughout the city.  I've never seen Humphrey angry before, but he was last night on this issue - and correctly so.  Righeimer had earlier described, while defending the 28 units on Harbor and Hamilton, that the only development we're seeing along there is car washes and storage lots.  Humphrey jammed those "facts" right back at him, and defined at least 590 housing units that had, or are being, approved along that stretch of road.

Anna Vrska, at 12:50 a.m., questioned the activities of Jones & Mayer, our contract law firm that provides City Attorney services.  She began totaling up numbers that implied that we're being billed for 5 full-time attorneys every day of the year!  Seemed like a good question.

At the very end of the meeting, just before 1:00 a.m., Wendy Leece told the council that the Senior Corportation had voted to begin dissolving itself at their meeting Tuesday morning, and that everything was going just fine and dandy at the Senior Center.  Based on my conversations Tuesday, I don't think we're getting the whole story.  More on that later.

The next meeting is on July 1st, just in time for a discussion of who gets how many fireworks stands, and why.  Another time...

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