By Bradley Zint
9:53 PM PST, February 9, 2013
Sixth in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battles.
Billy Folsom grows his goatee distinctively long in memory of a fellow Costa Mesa employee whose suicide became the tragic emblem of a city in turmoil.
In his last chat with 29-year-old Huy Pham before his fatal jump from City Hall amid widespread layoff notices, Folsom remembers hearing Pham speak of his relative, who had such long facial hair that he could stroke it in times of thought.
“It made him wise and always gave him pause to think, instead of just reacting,” Folsom says.
Folsom, 59, sees his own facial hair as something to help him avoid being a “firebrand,” to aid him in thinking things through and just doing the right thing.
Many would agree that the influential city mechanic, after some 31 years of employment with Costa Mesa, has done exactly that, time and time again.
He’s served multiple terms as president of the city’s employee association, negotiated contracts, aided in hundreds of police investigations and put a variety of vehicles back in city service.
Colleagues add that he listened to, and represented, them well through the years and, come March, he’ll be sorely missed in his retirement.
“The way that he communicates with management and the employees is a class act,” says Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. She considers Folsom a mentor.
She calls him “that other wing, my right-hand man, explaining to everybody that this is how we work and this is how we come together. People look up to him.”
Folsom says he’s leaving Costa Mesa in a time when its operating budget, after attempts to keep spending under control, is lean and mean compared to past and more prosperous years. The result is tough times, he admits.
“It’s become a little frustrating, to be efficient, keep things on the road,” he says. “It’s been hard on everybody.”
‘From lawn mowers to fire trucks’
Folsom was born in Ogden, Utah, but moved to Newport Beach early in his life. He eventually finished high school back in Utah and has since spent most of his life in Costa Mesa.
Before beginning his career with the city in 1981, Folsom tried his hand at a few things, including marketing, advertising and running his own small businesses. He had a trucking company and automotive repair shop.
Folsom even did a stint as a gold miner in Arizona. He and his partners filed a claim in the Prescott Valley area.
They found pay dirt — at first.
“We did fairly well until we tried to go a little big time, took on some partners who knew a little bit more about business than we did,” Folsom says. “They made off with the money."
Like many a prospector before him, he never did get to that big one.
“We were always trying to find that mother lode,” Folsom says. “It’s maybe in that area, and it’s never been found yet. There’s still a vein up there somewhere.”
In Costa Mesa, he started out as a mechanic-one, with the promise of working on everything “from lawn mowers to fire trucks.”
“I liked that, the variety,” Folsom says.
He’s since moved up the ranks to a mechanic-three.
Folsom became involved in the CMCEA, which is similar to but not the same as a union, early on and later served multiple terms as its president.
He says he never expected he’d stay with the city for so long.
“I was just gonna do this for a few years, do my community service,” he says. “The pay was not real good but I had children, and there were benefits. Instead of being on the road all the time, I decided to settle down.
“And then five years turned into 10 years, and then 10 years … It just turned out I had a career here. I wasn’t really ever planning on it.”
He called the city staff one big family, and by the late 1980s, when he both lived and worked in Costa Mesa, he was vested in it. He now lives on the Eastside.
Outside of his job, Folsom formed an association for motor homes after they were targeted by people who didn’t like their aesthetics and advocated to ban them from being parked in driveways.
For a time, he was living in a motor home himself, a single dad with kids. Such homes were part of Costa Mesa’s character, he says, making it more eclectic than Newport Beach or Irvine.
Armed with purpose, Folsom says he and his colleagues “papered the whole city with fliers, stormed City Hall and went to council meetings.”
“We didn’t get all of what we wanted, but for the most part, people got to keep their motor homes,” Folsom says.
It was one of those times that an agreeable compromise was reached — “which is the way it should be,” he says.
Beyond the scope of Jiffy Lube
Within the 2010 election debates and talk of outsourcing, an accusation emerged that Folsom and his shop’s mechanic jobs were replaceable, that their wages and benefits were too expensive for guys with mere oil-change duties reminiscent of Jiffy Lube.
False, Folsom says.
“We work with a pretty small crew that does a large diversity of things,” he says.
For Folsom, one of them has been helping the Police Department with accident investigations, applying his mechanical know-how to protect the city in cases involving serious or fatal accidents.
Over his career, he worked hundreds of cases. He’s seen grisly crime scenes when “even after they’ve towed the car away, it still has a lot of blood and guts.”
Some involved claims that the city had a curve, curb or tree where it shouldn’t have been; other times it might be a scenario where someone claimed his brakes failed.
“So I analyzed the car and took it apart,” Folsom says, “to see if those brakes had failed, or whatever excuse or truth that he was telling.”
He says occasionally he would uncover a lie and keep the city’s liability to a minimum. Other times he might find the opposite.
“It’s always nice when you can help get someone off the street who deserves to be off the street,” Folsom says, “but it’s also really nice when you can find someone not guilty instead of having them go to jail for something that really wasn’t their fault.”
‘Not a big union guy’
Folsom sees himself as an advocate for the middle class that, if stronger, makes the whole country stronger.
“I’m a big for-the-middle-class guy,” he says. “You can see the trends throughout history where we are as a society.”
Despite his experience as head of his association, he calls himself “not a big union guy, but I see the need for them. I wish there wasn’t one. I don’t think there has to be one.”
In a philosophical moment, he adds that “there are some companies out there that are consistently best to work for, they pay their employees well. There are some companies that are notorious for doing the exact opposite.
“I think it hurts when you try and cheap down the whole society.”
Legacy in Costa Mesa
Nenadal, the CMCEA president, who started with the city the same time Folsom did, says he was exemplary in his leadership style, particularly the day Pham died at City Hall in March 2011.
“With the true colors coming out, that’s what created and brought our bond that much closer from a leadership like Billy,” she says. “His actions speak louder than words.”
He was always someone they could turn to, Nenadal adds: “With Billy being here so long, employees knew he knew the system, knew which way to go, knew that he would lead them in the right direction.”
Allan Roeder, who served as Costa Mesa’s city manager for 25 years, says while he didn’t always agree with Folsom on every issue, Folsom knew how to look at problems in the big picture.
During talks of outsourcing maintenance for police motorcycles more than 15 years ago, Folsom expressed confidence that his shop could continue the job, do it well and prevent costs from escalating, Roeder recalls.
“The reality of it is they took it in-house and they did a phenomenal job on the maintenance,” Roeder says. “It did result in reducing costs to the city and really won over members of the Police Department who were a bit skeptical about that.”
It was never about Billy, Roeder adds. “It was always how can he help the employees, how can he help the community and make it all come together.”
Councilwoman Wendy Leece says that she’s loved Folsom’s “true grit, and the fact he speaks his mind and stands on principle no matter what people think.
“Billy’s 30-year commitment to the city and his dedication to keeping our vehicles in top shape speak volumes,” Leece says.
“It’s almost like they make your job impossible just to say you can’t do it.”
That’s part of how Folsom describes the job now. He concedes that he’s leaving at a time when, though better in some ways than two years ago, the city is still facing a difficult situation. Some tasks at his shop, like delivering parts, used to be a done by a part-time worker.
Now Folsom says he does it himself, taking up an hour of travel time that could be better spent elsewhere.
“They’re paying me a mechanic’s wage to be a parts driver,” he says. “That’s not the right thing to do.”
For the first time in his decades in Costa Mesa, he says, the CMCEA has been put on the defensive, facing attacks from a council majority intent on controlling spending for employees’ pensions, in particular, and outsourcing some divisions.
“We knew what the numbers were,” he adds. “We were always honest with each other. If we needed to put more into our pensions, we put more into our pensions. If we needed to take a cut in pay, we took a cut in pay. If we needed a furlough day, we took a furlough day.
“We always sat down at the table and put the truth out there and bargained with that truth in mind.”
The anti-union banter has lightened since the November election, though, he says.
Besides, there’s “no one to be aggressive with,” he adds. “The staff is so pared-down. They have to keep the people they have now.”
As far as outsourcing? He doesn’t think it’ll be much cheaper. The street-sweeping bidders probably “fudged their numbers” to get lower than the city’s, he claims. The city’s program is very efficient, he says.
But being on the front lines of those debates is likely behind him now, as his retirement comes soon after his 60th birthday in March.
He’s applying with the city to have a photography business and is also interested in starting his own music promotion gig for everything from blues to metal, especially for small venues. He enjoys plenty of hobbies, including motorcycles and boats.
He has seven kids, all grown up now — the youngest was just accepted to Ohio State — and four grandchildren to keep tabs on as well.
And through it all, he wants to stay in Costa Mesa.
“I’ll be involved in the community,” he says. “I’m not planning on moving out, ya know? If I won the lottery, I’d just get a bigger, badder place here.”