Our upcoming election offers a clear choice for Costa Mesa. Will we empower the union-supported candidates ("the Top 3") or continue with the reform-minded candidates ("the 3Ms)?

The stakes are significant. No doubt, we were greatly impacted by the recession. Needed investments that make our city a better place to live and an attractive destination for people and businesses were cut. Our rainy-day fund was drained of $32 million before we balanced our budget last year.

We discovered that pension obligations were exploding and will increase to $19 million a year, about 15% of our general fund. This phenomenon of super-sized pensions is new and unique to the public sector, as such generous pensions are unavailable in the private sector and for good reason. No one can afford them. Even scarier is this debt will grow faster if rosy assumptions of 1980-era investment returns don't materialize.

Moreover, Sacramento's recent pension reforms will not rescue us because legislators only tinkered with the margins and did not fix the underlying problem. Consequently, our debt will grow much faster than revenue, exerting enormous pressure on our budget.

The consequence of growing pension debt is that our residents receive fewer parks, pothole and street repairs, sidewalks, and other capital improvements. As necessary services and improvements are squeezed, our city diminishes. While we may wish to avoid this unpleasantness, ignoring it will not cause it to go away.

Let's examine how the two slates perceive Costa Mesa's preeminent issue.

Councilman Steve Mensinger's first promise in his "contract with Costa Mesa" is to: "Reform the unsustainable local public-employee pension system." ("Me and my 'Contract with Costa Mesa,'" Sept. 14).

Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy says on his website that "I decided to run for City Council to help keep our course, to spend taxpayers' hard-earned dollars more efficiently, to reinvest in our critical infrastructure needs and support our local schools."

Councilman Gary Monahan website promises, "Addressing the city's unfunded public employee pension liability is my No. 1 concern."

In stark contrast, the "Top 3," view their role differently.

Attorney John Stephens says on his website that he is running because, "We have suffered enough. I am stepping up to lead us to a better place." Beside promising to be our "Moses," Stephens wants to be our doctor too: "To heal our city, we need leadership that genuinely does what is best for all citizens of Costa Mesa."

According to businessman Harold Weitzberg's website, "I am running for City Council to come together as Costa Mesans, to heal our city and to create a foundation for sensible growth, based on unity, safety and prosperity."

While former Mayor Sandy Genis doesn't promise to "heal" or lead us to a promised land, she emphasizes on her website (albeit, in the past tense) that "Sandy was recognized as a fiscal conservative," and that her chief issues are public safety, O.C. Fairgrounds and neighborhoods.

Conspicuously absent from their websites is meaningful discussion of the financial issues that have embroiled our city for the past five years.

We will soon choose who will lead us through these financially troubling times. Which group better understands the issues we face? At this time, do we need "healers" or "leaders?"

TIMOTHY SESLER lives in Costa Mesa.