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.