Jim Righeimer, seen here at a groundbreaking ceremony in Costa Mesa in August, supports the “3Ms” — Colin McCarthy, Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger — in the upcoming Costa Mesa City Council election. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / August 9, 2012)

Last in a five-part series about Costa Mesa's political battle.

It has been nearly two years since Costa Mesa residents elected Jim Righeimer and his brand of small government. Hostile to organized labor, Righeimer led a four-member City Council majority in a quest to privatize city services and cut employee compensation.

Some heralded him as a visionary committed to getting outsized municipal spending under control, while others labeled him an ideologue hellbent on dismantling a competent government work force.

In November, voters will have the opportunity to affirm his philosophy or break up the majority and reject its proposed city charter — essentially a local constitution. A trio of candidates backed by Righeimer and an opposition coalition of three supported by a grass-roots group, Costa Mesans for Responsible Government (CM4RG), are in the Nov. 6 election.

The three-person opposing slates differ on issues from taxation to transparency, but perhaps their largest gap is their stance toward the city's employees.

"If the folks of Costa Mesa like what has been happening in the past few years," said Cal State Fullerton political scientist Shelly Arsneault, "it seems like they would stay the course. And this charter would likely make this move more quickly."

If the opposing slate wins, "I would not expect a total shift to some liberal agenda," she said, "but it looks like those folks want to take things more slowly."

On one side are Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy, Councilman Gary Monahan and Councilman Steve Mensinger, who was appointed to the council in January 2011. Dubbed the "3Ms," they share Righeimer's plan for a smaller government payroll and reduced pension obligations.

On the other side are former mayor Sandra "Sandy" Genis and two political newcomers, attorney John Stephens and businessman Harold Weitzberg. They have the backing of CM4RG.

"Costa Mesa is at a crossroads. There are major, major issues," said Monahan, who was first elected to the council in 1994 and has run multiple times since then.


The current City Council majority has championed outsourcing as a potential money-saver and sent 19 city services out for bid. So far, the council approved four to be contracted out to private companies, six to be kept in-house and three to be some hybrid of in-house and outsourced.

Before it studied the feasibility of contracting, the council issued pink slips to more than 200 employees in March 2011. Officials said they were bound by labor contracts to give advance notice in case the employees lost their jobs.

The Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. sued, and a judge issued an injunction that has prevented the council from signing contracts with outside companies.

If they could finish the process, city officials say they could save more than $2 million annually.

"That money that we save can be put into improving our roads and our parks," Monahan said.

The CM4RG candidates are more wary of outsourcing. They say selling heavy machinery — street sweepers for example — could leave the city at the mercy of companies.

"If we make the wrong decision, and we sell our equipment, it's very hard to put the toothpaste back in the bottle," Stephens said.

Genis, who makes the same point about equipment, does support outsourcing jail services.

"If we could do that, and free up some of the personnel to do the other police functions, that would be a great way to go."