Costa Mesa City Council candidates Wendy Leece, Jim Righeimer, Susan Lester and Chris McEvoy, left to right, introduce themselves before debates begin at Costa Mesa Verde United Methodist Church. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / August 19, 2010)

COSTA MESA — Four City Council candidates who squared off in a debate Wednesday night expressed concerns about the city's ailing budget but differed on ways to improve Costa Mesa's financial picture.

For Planning Commission Chairman Jim Righeimer, a conservative, the proposed higher hotel bed taxes and business license fees would hurt the city's reputation and eventually lead businesses and tourists to seek friendlier cities. To solve the budget crisis, Righeimer said the city will have to renegotiate the Police and Fire departments' salaries and benefits.

"We love our police and we love our fire, we just have to come together as adults, sit down and work out the deals," Righeimer, a former Daily Pilot columnist, said during the forum. "This city will file bankruptcy if we don't solve the problem."

He told the audience at the Mesa Verde United Methodist Church, which hosted the event sponsored by Mesa Verde Community Inc., that the police and fire associations have representatives who are sitting in the back of the room and are watching to see which candidate is going to support them.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who is running for her second term, took issue with Righeimer saying that the city will file bankruptcy.

She said the city is working collaboratively with the public safety departments to come up with the best solution for both and bankruptcy is unlikely. Public safety, Leece said, is one of her priorities. And the last thing she wants to see is for the city to be recruiting police and fire personnel who graduated at the bottom of their classes.

Like Righeimer, Leece isn't in favor of higher taxes, but she said it will be up to the voters whether the hotel tax would be raised during the November election.

Chris McEvoy, a high school math teacher, said increasing the hotel tax is one of the ways to help the city generate more revenues while not affecting its residents.

"We have a problem …," he said. "It's a way for the city to generate the money."

Sue Lester, who runs a nonprofit that provides medical products, including medicinal marijuana, said regulating the drug will create jobs and generate a lot of revenue for the city.

Lester and McEvoy said the city should create an ordinance that regulates dispensaries, while Leece and Righeimer spoke against it.

Righeimer seemed to stand alone when it came to Triangle Square's electronic signs that he and the rest of the commission approved. He defended the signs, saying they will only display the names of the businesses and will not flash lights or images.

Leece is appealing the commission's approval of the signs.

Righeimer was also alone on the Banning Ranch development in Newport Beach. He supports the project. The development of the 400 acres will include an arterial road that will connect South Coast Highway to 15th, 16th, 17th and 19th streets in Costa Mesa. Opponents say the road will cut through traffic in Costa Mesa and affect residents in the city.

Darnell Wyrick, president of Mesa Verde Community Inc., moderated the event.

Candidate Chad Petschl, a salesman, did not attend the forum.

The debate will air on CMTV24 at 2 and 9 p.m. Mondays; 9 a.m. Tuesdays; 9 p.m. Thursdays; 7 p.m. Fridays; 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; and noon Sundays.