"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.