First in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battle.
Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece peers down through a pair of spectacles at a pile of notes spread out on the coffee table.
"Because we have South Coast Plaza, we are in a very unique situation from other cities, like Stockton," she says, mentioning the bankrupt Northern California town. "We have this revenue source that brings in about $40 million — our sales tax revenue is about $40 million a year — and the rest is property tax...."
She continues, listing off budgeting figures and statistics. It's a quiet late afternoon a couple of weeks before election day, and Leece is talking politics from a comfy armchair in her living room on Costa Mesa's Westside. A "No on Measure V" sign leans against a wall by the front door. Leece's dog, Tucker, noses around on the sun-dappled carpet nearby.
Leece speaks passionately, but she seems relaxed. Her name wasn't on the ballot, after all. Still, there may have been no one in Costa Mesa more affected by Tuesday's elections. Leece has spent the better part of two years on the lonely side of multiple 4-1 council votes and was hopeful voters in this election would improve that ratio.
Since Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer's election in 2010 created a strong, unified majority bent on employee pension reforms, Leece has been a lone dissenting voice on some of the council's most controversial decisions. She was the only one to vote against laying off nearly half the city's workforce in March 2011. More recently, she was the only sitting council member to speak out against the controversial charter proposed in Measure V, which failed Tuesday, saying it was hastily written without proper public input.
"It's hard," she says, "I'm not going to say that it's easy. But I'm a committed person. I signed up for this."
Her next two years — Leece's last on the term-limited council — may not be much easier.
Leece threw her support behind the so-called "Top 3" slate, made up of former Mayor Sandy Genis, attorney John Stephens and businessman Harold Weitzberg, which ran in opposition to the "3Ms" slate, composed of current Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan, and Planning Commission Chairman Colin McCarthy. Genis was elected, earning the most votes out of the eight candidates, and Mensinger and Monahan appear to have kept their seats, though as of Saturday Stephens remained within 190 votes of Monahan for the third open seat.
This means Leece, an ally of Genis, likely will remain on the losing end of a 3-2 council split. But Leece, both before and after the election, said she'll keep doing what she's been doing.
School board years
Leece's career, from her election to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board in 1994 to her time on the City Council dais, which began in 2006, has seen its share of controversy.
"I was very conservative on the school board. You could dredge up stories," she says. "I didn't like certain books; I didn't like certain textbooks. I was for abstinence, American history and I was for the balanced approach to intelligent design and evolution. In other words, 'Let's just be fair and get everything out there.' "
"We weren't just going to pull over people who didn't look like they were from America, you know," she says. "But if they were doing a crime, then they might get arrested and go with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."
Today, 64-year-old Leece hasn't backed off those views, but those who've known her over the years say her priorities seem to have shifted.
"When I was on the City Council, she was just beginning to get involved in Costa Mesa issues," says Mary Hornbuckle, who sat at the dais from 1984 to 1996. "She's matured a little bit and changed somewhat. Her interest in the community has not changed at all … she's broadened the focus of her interest."
Part of that, says school board Trustee Katrina Foley, may stem from Leece's work outside the council as a substitute teacher at Juvenile Hall.
"She does amazing work, and I think she's changed a lot because of this work," Foley says. "I think it's really changed her worldview about the needs of children and families. She's completely dedicated to young people."