Nick Berardino, left, with the Orange County Employees Assn., Wendy Leece and Jim Righeimer, Costa Mesa City Council members, and Colin McCarthy, the Costa Mesa Planning Commission chairman, debate during the Feet to the Fire Forum at the Costa Mesa Community Center on Monday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / April 18, 2011)

COSTA MESA — At one point during the Feet to the Fire forum discussion on Monday night, Orange County Employees Assn. General Manager Nick Berardino questioned the heart and wisdom of having city employees work on proposals to contract out their own jobs.

"That is just ugly," Berardino said. The crowd applauded.

"It's reality," retorted Costa Mesa Councilman Jim Righeimer over that applause.

That exchange just about summed up the tone of the night's panel discussion at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center, which had more than 100 attendees.

Moderated by Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia, a panel made up of Register columnist Frank Mickadeit, Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis, Voice of OC reporter Norberto Santana Jr. and Newport Beach Independent Editor Roger Bloom asked Costa Mesa politicos if Costa Mesa should be run more like a business.

On opposite sides were Berardino and Righeimer — both immovable objects in their own right during the debate — and Councilwoman Wendy Leece and Planning Commissioner Chairman Colin McCarthy, who also helps lead the fiscally conservative Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn.

The discussion quickly changed into a debate of whether or not to outsource city employees. Little time was devoted to hard numbers and facts, which were also up for debate with the panel.

Instead, the 90-minute discussion focused on the City Council majority's decision to issue six-month layoff notices to nearly half the city workforce as part of a citywide austerity program to balance proposed future deficits.

Righeimer controlled the floor for most of the discussion, reiterating his arguments over the last few months that with the economy slow to recover and city's having to bear more of the brunt of public employee pension costs, cuts have to be made.

One man was removed after heckling Righeimer about five minutes into the event.

On the other end, Berardino and Leece argued that a projected $5-million budget shortfall in July can be balanced with minimal reductions — nothing like the 200-plus layoffs the council approved. They argued that employees have made concessions for the last three years and contribute enough into their pensions now to alleviate financial pressure on the city.

Twice it looked like Righeimer and Berardino could reach common ground.

Mickadeit suggested that city employees should have a later retirement age, such as 60 or 62, instead of the more common 50 or 55 among city employees. Berardino pointed out that, indeed, newly hired employees in Costa Mesa will actually retire older, at about 60, but balked at the idea that workers under the previous agreements could or should change.

Berardino later offered to sit down with Righeimer now and review the city's expenses and look at where cuts should be, even if that included outsourcing some workers' jobs as long as the city rescinds the layoff notices.

Righeimer didn't acknowledge it, offering instead to sit down with the OCEA on outsourcing after the city does its own study on the savings.