Third in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battles.
"Feels better now that I've been elected," Costa Mesa City Councilman Steve Mensinger said while sitting in Estancia High School's Football Training Center on a recent gray morning.
Mensinger, who was appointed to the council on Feb. 1, 2011, took his seat on the dais as some of the city's most intense battles over the outsourcing of city services and public employee pensions ramped up.
Opponents were angered that the council majority bypassed Chris McEvoy, the next-place finisher in 2010's council race, and Mensinger firmly planted himself in Councilman Jim Righeimer's budget-slashing, anti-union camp. Mensinger took over for Katrina Foley, who left the council before the end of her term after winning a seat on the Newport-Mesa Unified school board.
Now, after garnering the second-highest vote total of the eight Costa Mesa council candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot, those criticisms may be put to rest. And with the softening of the council majority's most controversial decision — to lay off hundreds of city workers in an effort to cut costs — back on the table, Mensinger's nastiest fights may be behind him.
"I think it's a positive," he said. "There's a window of opportunity after this election to kind of move forward in a positive fashion." And he added, "This gives both sides an opportunity to sit down and say, 'How do we work together to reduce costs and deliver better services?'"
Those are questions Mensinger, a longtime leader in the local youth sports community and a former businessman, said he asks in any situation. It's the answers, he said, that spark debate.
"One thing I've learned is whether it's the private sector, Pop Warner or Estancia football," he said, "is that when you make decisions, some people are going to like those decisions and some people aren't going to like those decisions."
Labor leader's opinion
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., would certainly fall into the latter category. As members of clashing groups in a political climate that's been characterized by personal attacks and vitriolic rhetoric, one might think Berardino and Mensinger would be a combustible combination.
Not so, said Berardino, whose organization represents many of Costa Mesa's non-public-safety employees.
"I've always had a really positive relationship with Steve," he said. "It is interesting that we've been very much on opposite ends. We've had some very heated discussions, but I've always found him to be cordial. We've had good, positive dialogue."
Mensinger even invited Berardino to talk to the Estancia football team a few months ago.
"My discussion with the team was about never giving up, working as a team and the importance of character," said Berardino, who served in the Marines. "The kids seemed to love him. They really appeared to think very highly of him."
Asked about his relationship with Berardino, Mensinger laughed.
"I respect Nick. I don't agree with him. And you're going to be hearing that about me for the next few years," he said. "I think Nick and I both agree on one thing: We want our legacy to be a positive legacy that not only deals with what people make, but how we improve the environment in which they work."
Leaving a legacy — building something — Mensinger said, is one of his biggest goals. Sometimes that may translate into a kind of single-minded determination that rubs people the wrong way.
In an incident Mensinger said introduced him to "the silliness of politics" soon after his appointment to the council, English teacher Joel Flores, who strongly supports organized labor, accused the councilman of "chest-bumping" him during a discussion over the council's outsourcing plans at a community event.