Costa Mesa City Council candidate Lee Ramos speaks during a Newport-Mesa Tea Party candidates forum Thursday night at the Halecrest Park Swim and Tennis Club in Costa Mesa. (BRADLEY ZINT, Daily Pilot / April 10, 2014)

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Integrity is essential to public service and is something achieved over a long period of time, a Costa Mesa City Council candidate stressed during a conservative candidates forum Thursday evening.

"I believe that the old man who's running for City Council can lend his experience and work with people," said Lee Ramos, a Costa Mesa resident since 1947 who serves on the Charter and Fairview Park committees.

Ramos, 70, was one of three invited candidates from Costa Mesa and Newport Beach who spoke at the Newport-Mesa Tea Party event. Also presenting were Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer, who is up for reelection, and Scott Peotter, who has served as planning commissioner for Irvine and Newport Beach and is running for a seat on the Newport council.

About 30 people attended the forum at the Halecrest Park Swim and Tennis Club.

Local Tea Party founder Tom Pollitt, who is running for the county Board of Education this June, said the group will probably host more forums, though the specifics haven't been finalized.

Ramos said his council tenure would be about compromise with a good attitude.

He credited the current council with fiscal responsibility and budgeting toward capital improvement projects, such as street repaving.

He added that through his door-to-door campaigning, he estimates that "95% of residents feel [Costa Mesa is] on the right track. To me, that makes me feel good."

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Unfunded pension liability

Righeimer, who is supporting Ramos, pointed to the city's "phenomenal" municipal work force and the dollars that are going into capital improvements. He cited one project that helped some residences escape flooding during rainstorms.

First elected in 2010, Righeimer also spoke extensively about the city's unfunded pension liability — one of his core political themes — and of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS.

He was critical of previous councils that, in a move to save money, gave some employees "golden parachutes" as retirement incentives and also spent millions from Costa Mesa's reserve funds.

He called CalPERS a "political organization" in charge of billions of dollars.

"Once you understand it's a political organization, everything makes sense," Righeimer said.

A step toward solving the unfunded pension liability — estimated for Costa Mesa at about $228 million — is having existing employees agree to change their benefit plans, he said.

"There's no other way to do this," Righeimer said.

He predicted that as more cities in California file bankruptcy, there will be acknowledgments that unsustainable pension plans were a significant part of the problem.

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Newport Beach candidate