By Jill Cowan
7:17 PM PST, November 24, 2012
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.
Mensinger, who stands about 6 feet 4 inches tall, denied making intentional physical contact with Flores, but didn't deny exchanging words. The conservative Mensinger and the liberal Flores are equally committed to their divergent political views.
Like Mensinger, Costa Mesa blogger Geoff West is a Republican, but he doesn't care for Mensinger's business-like approach to municipal government.
"Let me preface this by saying [Mensinger's] a take-charge guy," West said, referring in part to Mensinger's previous career in the development and commercial property management. "But he hasn't been burdened by the need to follow rules. In a past life, he didn't need to. In government, there's rules."
Willingness to change
Mensinger stressed that he listens well and is open to being convinced by opposing arguments. An example of a time he changed his mind?
"I thought outsourcing [of city services] was the answer to everything," he said. "It's not. Outsourcing the wrong way can be worse than a government system, or just as bad as an inefficient government system."
Mensinger has also said in the past that he's willing to work with critics, inviting them to coffee and one-on-one meetings during which he can build relationships that cannot be forged during a council meeting.
West allowed that things may be different, now that the council majority has signaled a desire for a post-election fresh start.
"We'll see if there's a change," he said. "I'm willing to give him a chance."
Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who often found herself on the losing end of 4-1 votes in which Mensinger enjoyed being part of the majority, wants to let bygones be bygones.
"I hope we can begin a new chapter now that the election is over, and reconcile our differences, forget the past and work together as one community moving forward together," she wrote in an email.
Mensinger said his political disagreements are rooted in deeply held beliefs. That "passion," as he called it (think Steve Jobs — the only "reason for me to become a Democrat," he joked) can be intimidating to some, but it also means a focus on action and decisiveness.
Mensinger's supporters see a strong leader who is willing to listen to all sides, but who stands his ground in a political environment every bit as tough as the gridiron.
"He values input, but he's also nobody's fool," Righeimer said. "He won't tell you you're wrong, he will drill down on [an issue]. There's still a mission, if something has to get done and handled. [He's not going to say], 'It's too contentious, we're not going to get into this issue.'"
Righeimer credited Mensinger with figuring out "a legal, proper way" to construct Costa Mesa's Civic Openness in Negotiations (or COIN) Ordinance to allow further public scrutiny of labor negotiations.
"He keeps on pushing through," Righeimer said.
Mensinger said serving on the council has taught him a lot about the nuts and bolts of running a city, and it's shaped his priorities going forward.
Many of those, he said, he tried to lay out as transparently as possible in his "Contract with Costa Mesa," which was published as a commentary in the Daily Pilot in September.
Since being elected, he said, his commitment to adjusting the budget to funnel more money into improving infrastructure and less into compensation for public safety employees hasn't changed.
"Elected officials move incrementally," he said. "Grass seed doesn't vote, roads don't vote. [Past administrations] cut what they can cut. That's a core issue in Costa Mesa."
In the coming months and years, he said, he hopes the city can figure out a way to buy and redevelop some of the more problematic motels, like the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, which he said accounts for about 500 police calls a year.
Doing so, he said, would help to stop the city from attracting what he called law enforcement "customers," resulting in a drop in crime, and, he hopes, a kind of culture shift.
"Business and the public sector are virtually identical. Service is service," he said. "We can be the Nordstrom of cities. Do we want to be Kmart? It's not a function of how much you pay someone. It's a culture."
He also said revising the charter proposed in Costa Mesa's failed Measure V is on the agenda for the upcoming term.
Mensinger said a desire to "raise the bar," and seeing unsolved infrastructure problems were what drove him to make the jump from heavy involvement in the local youth sports scene to city politics.
"In 2002, my son started playing youth football. The challenge we had was there was not enough field space," he said, adding that his first call was to then-Councilman (now Assemblyman) Allan Mansoor. "I realized youth sports is political, and from that point forward I got involved in city politics."
Decked out in a dark pinstriped suit that recent morning at Estancia, the 50-year-old father of two looked every bit the politician.
But when Mensinger greeted Estancia Assistant Coach Mike Delao as a game tape played behind him on a wall-mounted flatscreen, it's clear that the little building whose walls are lined with team photos and championship banners still felt like home.
Yumi Watanabe-Patterson, who has worked with Mensinger through both Pop Warner and the Estancia boosters, said that despite new demands on his time, he can still be counted on to come out for a fundraiser or lend a hand at the field.
She recalled a recent cheerleading fundraiser at Chick-fil-A, where Mensinger was first in line.
"The kids are always pleasantly surprised that he's actually there," she said. "He's one of the first ones to get his hands dirty, if it's a cleaning day."
Added Gordon Bowley, who has worked with Mensinger through the youth sports group Costa Mesa United, "when he says he's going to do something, he does it. You don't have to follow up, you don't have to ask him. He does it."
Bowley said he sees Mensinger as "aggressive," taking on tasks and following through, but "never a bully."
"I just get really into things," Mensinger said.
It's a mindset, he said, that means he has no regrets.
"If I regret something, I make provisions to change it, so that it never happens again," he said. "You leave a legacy. What are my kids going to say about me?"