For the "City of the Arts," the most talked-about ticket hasn't been to a Segerstrom stage; it's been to the political theater spreading from the Council Chambers off Fair Drive and beyond.

Costa Mesa — population 111,000 — faces an election day unlike any other in its nearly 60-year history.

The days, months and hours before Nov. 6 have been preceded by a seemingly relentless stream of debate, rebuttal and counter-rebuttal.

It's been hours of public comments at council sessions, bickering at public forums, headlines of strife reaching driveways and front doors, cyberspace conversations turning to typed-out shouting sessions, mailboxes stuffed with mailers, allegations of back-room deals, private investigators in the night, an alleged DUI setup, a hazy video of suspected vandalism and slashed campaign signs, their pieces left to blow away in the wind.

How did it come to this? How did one officially nonpartisan, local government body — of a suburban city with shades of industry, metropolitan tastes and world-class arts — and its followers and dissenters become so entrenched in opposing battle lines of partisan politics?

The answers are complex and varied, the opinions as diverse as the electorate.

Though one facet seems certain: Election season 2012, for all its political antics both typical and not, has been a heated one, if not the hottest yet.

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Who and what's on the ballot

Eight candidates are running for three open seats on the five-member City Council. Two are running as incumbents: Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger.

Monahan, a sports bar owner, is seeking his fifth nonconsecutive term, the first of which began in 1994.

Mensinger, a businessman, was appointed to his position in January 2011 to replace Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who resigned to instead serve on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's board. Mensinger served on the Planning Commission and is widely known for his activity in youth sports.

One candidate, Sandra Genis, sat on the dais from 1988 to 1996, which included a two-year stint as mayor. Her civic involvement in recent years has included efforts to block the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Three others — Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy, businessman Harold Weitzberg and attorney John Stephens — are first-time candidates. Retired certified public accountant Al Melone and James Rader have not actively campaigned.

Mensinger, Monahan and McCarthy have campaigned together as the "3Ms" slate.

Calling themselves "The Top 3" after their randomly selected ballot positions, Genis, Weitzberg and Stephens have campaigned together against the 3Ms and the council majority led by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer.

Lastly, there is Measure V, a ballot initiative to institute a charter — essentially a constitution for the city. Costa Mesa is a general-law city, meaning it falls under the purview of state guidelines.

Emerging from the Measure V political battle are two main camps: one that insists the 10-page charter gives the city the financial tools to right itself, saves taxpayer money, enacts a basis of home rule and lessens the influence of unions by eliminating some requirements to pay the mandated prevailing wages; and another that asserts that the Righeimer-created charter was rushed through without sufficient public input, that it would foster an environment of cronyism, give the council majority too much power and actually provide little city savings.

The former consists of the 3Ms, Righeimer, the fiscally conservative Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn. and other like-minded groups; the latter is a group that includes organized labor, the grass-roots activist group Costa Mesans for Responsible Government (CM4RG), and Weitzberg, Genis and Stephens.

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Timeline until now

Observers say the council's current course — pushing for pension reform and overall austerity — stems from the election of Jim Righeimer, who, for better or for worse, has been at the center of Costa Mesa's two-year political storm.

Righeimer, a former planning commissioner, was elected in 2010. The businessman had a failed council run in 2008, but then bounced back two years later as the top vote-getter. Before moving to Costa Mesa with his family about six years ago, he had lived in Fountain Valley for 18 years.

As the former campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), Righeimer has maintained close ties to the Republican Party of Orange County. Such ties have helped fuel his largely hard-line approaches toward dealing with organized labor leaders and advocating for smaller government, controlled spending and lessening deficits — particularly for employee pensions.

The city's political scene greatly intensified months after Righeimer had a seat at the political table. In March 2011, the council, minus Councilwoman Wendy Leece, declared its intent to lay off nearly half the city's workforce — more than 150 people — and privatize some city services.

"This has been coming on for a long time, and we're coming to a point that's rock bottom," then-Mayor Gary Monahan told the audience of primarily city employees that night.

Soon after, the council also declared an intent to reinvest in the city's capital improvement projects — a long overdue priority, they said.

Two weeks later came a flash point: City employee Huy Pham, 29, of Fountain Valley — who was about to receive a layoff notice — jumped off the roof of City Hall. Though Pham had been fighting personal problems unrelated to the pink slips, the suicide shocked Fair Drive and the community, further contributing to the sinking of employee morale that, some inside City Hall say, has never quite bounced back.

The lawsuit to fight the layoffs, filed by the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents some 200 Costa Mesa employees, has since achieved a temporary injunction against any outsourcing, but antagonism between organized labor and politicians who would push for such action has lingered — and so has talk critical of the council majority, whose detractors cry foul against the apparent lack of community input meeting after meeting. The council pushed the charter to the November ballot, dissenters say, after a clerical error made it ineligible for the June primary.

This monumental error and others have cost the taxpayers money and seem to contradict the council's stated goals of fiscal responsibility, these council critics contend.

The council majority and other observers, however, see things differently. They believe that they speak for a quiet majority who, given the city's Republican leanings, supports their agenda.

They also see the battle as a war with organized labor.

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'It's just happy talk' vs. a 'charter scheme'

Righeimer doesn't see the value in negotiating if "one side just won't acknowledge the math" of the city's looming pension debts. A "go along, get along" approach with unions has not and will not work, he said.

"The other side is just saying, 'If you could just be nicer,'" Righeimer said. "It doesn't mean anything. It's just happy talk."

Meanwhile, it's the unions that have made personal attacks and turned the fight ugly, he said.

Righeimer said he sees himself simply as "an elected representative of the community" who, along with the rest of the council majority, is making "tough decisions to get our financial house in order." The charter will do this, he asserts.

On the other end is the OCEA, which, along with other labor groups, have shoveled nearly $480,000 into defeating Measure V — a sum nearly 10 times that of the competition.

They and other charter opponents argue that it would set up Costa Mesa for lawsuits and failure seen in other California charter cities, like Bell, Stockton and Vallejo.

"This all started when the City Council tried to, behind closed doors, rush through a charter proposal and grab more powers from the residents of Costa Mesa," said OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir.

"I think it's unfortunate that the residents who have been at every single meeting and who have spent the past several months talking to their neighbors … that they've had to spend so much time, energy and effort," she added.

One such neighbor is Robin Leffler, a 39-year resident and president of CM4RG.

The grass-roots group formed in February 2011. It hasn't accepted contributions from employee associations or unions.

"Most of our money has been raised locally," Leffler said.

Its membership is loose, with an email list of about 2,000 people that includes Republicans and Democrats, she said.

She also discussed an increase in some neighborhood crimes in light of a cut-back Costa Mesa Police Department, the two-year season of upheaval, turmoil and lawsuits — not to mention the employees with a "sword hanging over their heads all the time."

"We need a council that can solve the tough issues but doesn't create this drama," she said.

Asked if he'd have done anything differently, Righeimer responded, "I mean, obviously hindsight is whatever — it'd be different. It's a strategy or a different tactic. In the end, it doesn't make sense if you're trying to get freedom from the state laws telling you how to spend their money."

If Measure V fails, he said, a similar measure will be on the ballot in 2014. It's only a matter of time before his reforms are implemented, he said.

"In the end, 20 years from now, we're going to be a charter city and a lot of things will be better in Costa Mesa and in Orange County," Righeimer said. "Twenty years from now, they're going to say, 'They took care of this.' And I'm going to be out walking my dog."

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Ideological debates

"Ground zero for virtually everything taking place in the country."

That's how Fred Smoller, a professor of public administration at Brandman University, an affiliate of Chapman University, sees Costa Mesa's role on the larger political stage.

And the charter proffered in Measure V?

"It's a political manifesto of how government should be organized in the 21st century," he said.

The city, Smoller said, has become a kind of microcosm of the fundamental ideological debates facing voters at every level.

"I mean, it's the issue of, 'How can we be a viable local and state and federal government in an era of decreased resources?'" he said. "That's going on at the federal level with Romney and Obama, and at the state level with Proposition 30."

While Smoller said both sides of the argument have merit — expensive public employee pensions are still a problem, but it's neither possible, nor prudent, to run public services like a profit-driven company — the way Righeimer and the council tackled the issues was far from ideal.

"My answer is we need to rethink local control," he said. "Jim wants to destroy rather than reform, and I'm arguing that you need to reform."

What's pushed the Costa Mesa battles to a new level of vitriol is a mixture of the city having been "ground zero for Orange County Republicans since forever," Smoller said, and the introduction of "personalities," like Righeimer, whom he called O.C.'s version of the virulently anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"I think the circumstances of his coming to office are the function of real budget shortfalls … [but Righeimer] just doesn't believe unions have a right to exist," he said. "Does the man produce the times, or do the times produce the man?"

OCGOP Chairman Scott Baugh, who strongly supports Righeimer's mission, might argue the latter. The fiscal stakes, he said, have forced local governments' hands.

National attention, he said, has "upped the ante and the intensity" of Costa Mesa's campaigns, but the city isn't the exclusive battleground.

The fact that Measure V is on Costa Mesa's ballot does, however, position the city at a particular turning point, more so than other cities that have already adopted charters.

"The heart of the matter is it's easier to do these reforms when you're a charter city," Baugh said. "And the issue for a charter city is: Do the people of Costa Mesa want to have their own sovereignty of their own constitution?"

Mensinger, writing in an email, emphasized Measure V's urgency.

"We don't have an option to go back to the days of fiscal irresponsibility that have mortgaged our children's future," he wrote.

The tone of the campaigns was set when public employee unions "declared war on Jim Righeimer before he was elected," Baugh said. "I guess Mr. Righeimer could've rolled over and played nice and gotten nothing done."

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Republican registration

Though there is much tension between unions and Righeimer's council majority, Costa Mesa remains a GOP stronghold. Of the city's nearly 60,000 registered voters, about 23,000 are Republicans, 18,000 are Democrats and 15,000 have no stated party preference, according to recent data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters. The remainder are a mix of the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and other parties.

In fact, many of the council's critics, such as Genis, are Republicans who say this particular fight does not fall along those tried-and-true divisions: Democrats and labor vs. Republicans and business.

What does seem clear among the sizable Republican majority, according to Leffler, a Republican, is little regard to GOP icon Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

"It's all about outsiders saying they want to turn Costa Mesa into an experiment," Leffler said. "And so they have, and we are the ones who are suffering. We didn't ask to be ground zero."

She added that other cities are dealing with similar issues such as pension reform, but "they're going about it calmly."

She and others said the OCGOP doesn't necessarily represent their brand of the Republican way.

Council candidate Melone, a fellow Republican who's largely stayed out of the fray by not actively campaigning or accepting many contributions, agreed with Leffler.

"Now what we got is some nasty stuff going on, more so than normal," he said.

Melone, who two years ago volunteered for Righeimer's council campaign — "putting up signs, not stealing them" — today calls himself a hybrid: He supports Measure V, city service outsourcing and a willingness to address the unions' influence. But all the while, "the council majority is not a soft heart," he said.

He sees part of the battle as an us vs. them, unions vs. the council majority.

"Everything here is pretty obvious," he said. "All these moneys coming in against the charter, this council majority has shaken things up by wanting get the books balanced and stop this runaway control by employees."

The unions, he said, see a threat: If their causes fail here in Costa Mesa, that failure could spread to other cities and reduce union influence.

"They don't listen to people," Melone said of the council's style. "They don't draw the line between the employees and the residents, in my opinion. They want to go after the employee unions with a hatchet? I say do it."

Fellow candidate Harold Weitzberg, a 29-year resident and registered Democrat, used the term "divide" in describing this year's campaign.

There is a lot at stake, he said, with two positions on which way the city should go. "It's one of the first times there have been such two distinct sides that both had strength to them."

"I think that, in and of itself, is what brings a lot of the disagreement to this election," he added, saying he's avoided negative campaigning and "tried to bring facts and content" to the discussion.

"I think there are individuals on the other side who bring up slogans and rhetoric that do not address any real issues," Weitzberg said. "They're basically inflammatory dialogue. That does not help the dialogue."

Jim Fitzpatrick, president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., also sees the influence of unions as detrimental to the city.

"The tone has been set, dictated and governed by unions," he wrote in an email. "It started with the misguided police union attacking Righeimer ... Big labor unions took the ball and have spent over half a million dollars toward the goal line, talking emotions, not issues, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

"Unions are not the friend of the taxpayer."

Labor leaders, however, have said the union wages they provide, such as the prevailing wage, are essential. They help middle-class working families, said OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino in an interview last month.

"Without having a prevailing wage, working families are only going to get pushed more out of the middle class and become part of the working poor," he said. "Whether it's Costa Mesa or anywhere in the United States, we have to begin to focus on how we can get working families back on their feet."

Melone, though, said for all the pre-election day talk, he is considering this: "No matter who wins, the world will not come to an end on Nov. 6 ... Costa Mesa will still be here, one way or another."

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Historical perspectives, academic perspectives

Geoff West, a 40-year resident and lifelong Republican whose A Bubbling Cauldron blog is full of "a few facts and a lot of opinion of local issues," said he's never seen an election like this, but what frustrates him the most is people's "willingness to flat-out lie."

"It's astounding, because how do you defeat a liar?" West said. "You just have to call them out, I guess."

Past councils, he said, could work with each other and residents with decorum and without hostility. "Chided, vilified, chastised" were words he used to describe how this council treats speakers.

"I think we have too many outside influences trying to affect our local government, on both sides of the issues," he said.

He mentioned the idea of an OCGOP takeover, that the party is "trying to make our city a petri dish for reform."

Hank Panian, a resident since 1956 who served on Mesa Consolidated Water District's board for 21 years, said the 2012 election might be close to the tensions of 1960. Around that time, three school districts unified and so did four water districts.

"In both those cases, there were two solidly set sides, with very few people in between," he said.

Then there was 1974, the year Norma Hertzog became the first woman elected to the City Council. The establishment of the time underestimated her, Panian said.

Panian, who does not support Measure V, served on a charter-forming commission in 1971, whose members decided via consensus to remain a general-law city.

"That consensus has not occurred with Measure V, and I'm sorry for that," he said.

But this year? The hostility and acrimony on both sides are unmatched, as far as he remembers.

"I'm not sure it bodes well for the future of the city, because I think it's going to be hard to overcome the statements that have been made and the actions taken on both sides," he said.

Still, that partisanship reflects some of what's happening on a national level, Panian said.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at USC's Price School of Public Policy, said political infighting has been a fixture of American life since the country was formed.

"It's not unique. Almost every political entity has had [a similar debate to Costa Mesa], to tell you the truth," she said. "In almost any old city, the fight gets dirty, particularly if the stakes are high for either of them."

What has changed, she said, is the level of partisanship — even in California's "nominally nonpartisan" local level.

Mensinger said the level of debate is a healthy part of the democratic process.

"Democracy and free speech are alive and well in Costa Mesa," he wrote in an email. "In prior years, the heated debates would [pertain to] topics of traffic, antidevelopment and no growth. Not much has changed other than the issues."

He added, "Most of us can debate, disagree and have coffee the next day."

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'Whoever's doing the best job'

Those in political and media circles tend to believe nothing could be more important than Tuesday's elections. For some residents, though, Costa Mesa's seething political undercurrents barely register.

"I know [the City Council] cut a lot of stuff, like police," said 24-year-old Costa Mesa resident Trent Holloway as he tucked into a Five Guys burger outside the chain's Harbor Boulevard outpost at Costa Mesa Square.

Asked how they planned to vote on Measure V, his wife, 26-year-old Janet Holloway said, "They mailed us something home, but I didn't get to read it." She dipped a fry in ketchup and shrugged.

Both said they planned to vote, but they hadn't yet decided for whom.

"People care, but people need to get involved," the young husband said. "I don't even know who's running for council."

Others say the constant bickering is exhausting.

Jim Mansfield, 70, who sat with his old friend Jack Hartel outside Starbucks on Thursday, said he's walked neighborhoods for CM4RG.

As a Costa Mesan since 1978, he remembers "some elections back in the '80s" as being contentious, but the charter has added another dimension to the conflict.

"I think the current council has been way too political about it," he said. "They don't have to go on TV or grandstand to get their point across."

Hartel, 68, said he moved to Minnesota in 2009 after living in Costa Mesa for 35 years. He said he feels "sorry for [his] grandkids, if it keeps going like this."

While his new hometown of Maple Grove is "pretty quiet" as far as local elections go, in general, "this is the worst political climate that I can remember. It's not productive."

He gestured to Mansfield.

"You and I aren't in the same pockets on everything, but we have a right to say it, and we listen to each other," Hartel said. Mansfield nodded.

Across the parking lot, Alverta Landis, 75, chatted between drags from a cigarette outside Target. She said she's lived in Costa Mesa for almost 20 years and she follows politics extensively.

From day one of campaigning, Landis said, she's known "without a doubt" who she's voting for: Mitt Romney.

"Gotta get the 'Bummer out of there," she said, adding that she plans to vote only for Republicans.

As for the local elections — well, she'll figure that out on election day.

"I know everything, but those parts, I haven't decided yet," Landis said. "Whoever's doing the best job."

jill.cowan@latimes.com; bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @TheDailyPilot