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.
'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.