Mayor's award recipient Norma Hertzog speaks during the second annual Costa Mesa mayor's dinner at the Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa on Thursday. Hertzog was the first female councilmember for the City of Costa Mesa. (Kevin Chang/ Daily Pilot) (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / May 8, 2014)

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The Costa Mesa political scene of 1974 has long been over, but on Thursday night, Norma Hertzog couldn't help but have a little fun with the past.

Four decades ago, Hertzog had the distinction of being the first female councilmember elected to the City Council. Standing before a packed Samueli Theater during the second annual Mayor's Celebration dinner, the 85-year-old talked about the year she broke the gender barrier.

"I won my City Council race, much to the chagrin of the city," Hertzog recalled in her speech while receiving the Mayor's Award. "The City Hall vibrated for weeks because I was the first woman. The men on the council were not too happy, were they, Jack?"

The crowd laughed with the little chide directed at former Mayor Jack Hammett, who was seated up front and was among several interviewed in a video presentation about Hertzog's contributions toward a still-new city. She served three terms, leaving in 1986.

Attendees also laughed when she talked about her initial hesitation to attend the mayor's event because she didn't want to "get out my rocking chair." But the former preschool teacher said she was convinced when she learned the dinner would benefit children's arts programs.

"Those beautiful buildings that we have are only buildings unless we fill them with music and drama," Hertzog said. "A building is a building to look at, but it's nothing unless it can sing and stir the soul, and that's what we want our young people to do."

Hertzog was credited with helping urge the city to give seed funding that brought South Coast Repertory to Costa Mesa.

"Costa Mesa needed something," Hertzog said. "Costa Mesa had nothing. It was a kind of a meat-and-potato town. You'd just go right through it, and you'd never know you'd been there. We needed something to make it special."

David Emmes and Martin Benson, co-founders of South Coast Repertory, were also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. In a video shown to the audience, several of the company's founding artists complimented Emmes and Benson and how much SCR has meant to their lives.

The acclaimed theater, which had scrappy beginnings in Newport Beach, now complements the Segerstrom Center for the Arts venues and is celebrating its 50th season.

In addition, the developers of South Coast Collection, Scott Burnham and Bryon Ward, were honored with the Art of Leadership Award.

During the dinner, SoCo was called one of Costa Mesa's "greatest success stories," with the duo praised for turning around an underperforming property and transforming it into a popular and critically acclaimed hub of dining and shopping alongside the 405 Freeway.

"If cities have personalities, Costa Mesa would be like the Renaissance man," Ward said. "It has so many dimensions, so much diversity. It's eclectic. It's prestigious. It just has so much."

The dinner was also highlighted by artists, jazz musicians and singers from Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools.

In Mayor Jim Righeimer's state of the city address, he highlighted some of the recent actions of the council and city staff, among them: money-saving changes to workers' compensation, outsourcing the city jail to save millions, the COIN ordinance to bring more transparency to labor negotiations, comprehensive street repaving efforts and recent years of city budget surpluses.

"Costa Mesa's brand is strong," Righeimer said. "We're doing really well."

He also cited the successful cost-saving restructuring of the Fire Department, the completed Fairview Park Wetlands & Riparian Habitat, City Hall computer upgrades, two pay raises totaling 8% for city police officers and the new "Costa Mesa Connect" civic engagement smartphone app, which, among its capabilities, allows residents to easily request services like graffiti removal.

"It's a much more efficient system than calling me at 6 o'clock in the morning," Righeimer said of the app.