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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