"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."

*

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.