Tag Archives: deficit

Who’s bankrupt?

An Open Letter to Costa Mesa Blogger Geoff West

Geoff: They used to say journalism is just first-draft history, that daily and even weekly deadlines don’t give reporters the kind of chronological distance that actual history1 requires. But in the case of this post, the first draft has taken a month and a half, a fact that means it should read like something from the Oxford University Press. It doesn’t.

But even this late in the day, the subject is worth considering, bearing as it does on the First Amendment, laws of logic, the reputation of Councilmember Steve Mensinger and, by extension, the pension battle in Costa Mesa. At least three of those subjects are evergreens; I’m not sure anyone cares about logic anymore.

Our story begins with a June 11 “Bubbling Cauldron” post in which you claim that Mensinger and his council colleague Jim Righeimer are going to destroy the city of Costa Mesa by employing a black-magic combo of Republican incantations (a “mantra,” you call it) and the “skills that they used to ride two divisions of SunCal Companies into the ground.”

You even imply that your insight isn’t really much of an insight, that what Righeimer and Mensinger are doing in facing down the public employee union leadership over pensions and such is obviously/outrageously evil/criminal/dangerous. “It’s really hard to imagine that they really think the public is so blind and stupid,” you write, puzzled, in a way that sounds as if you think we (the public) are equipped with doctorates and X-ray vision. But, no, that can’t be right because by the end of the same paragraph it’s pretty clear that you—Geoff West—believe we (the very same public) are in fact “blind and stupid”: “I’m not sure what it’s going to take for the voters of this city to wise-up.”

But I’m less interested in your measure of our intellect vis-à-vis your own (which, well, wow), and more compelled by your claim that Righeimer and Mensinger destroyed “two divisions of SunCal Companies.” Because that discovery would be like 64-point Helvetica bold news if it were true, the local news equivalent of a moon landing: if the guys who claim they can balance Costa Mesa’s budget have actually cratered (not just one but) two companies, well, brother, that’s a killer story.

But in that June 11 post, you didn’t provide any evidence to support the claim, and reading it made the dentate rows in the mouth of the internal editor in me just clench in the kind of terror rictus that immediately precedes (in my case, anyhow) pants-wetting. Because as I read it, your claim includes at least two of the three components of libel—it’s defamatory and it’s published—and I’m here to tell you that I think it also includes the third: it’s false.

I’m not alone in that opinion. On July 1, you told your readers that an attorney representing Mensinger had notified you that Mensinger believes “[t]his statement is demonstrably false and defamatory. No company Mr. Mensinger has been an employee of, including the division of SunCal that he managed, has ever gone bankrupt.”

Mensinger’s attorney went on to demand a correction. And that’s when you made your second mistake: you doubled down.

“Although I already knew that his accusations were specious, I spent a little time browsing the Internet and in a very short time I found more than 20 articles that verified the facts,” you write. “SunCal Companies has been mired in bankruptcy proceedings for several years, and those proceedings include the Multifamily Division of which Mensinger had been president. In addition, Mensinger was also a Division President with The Bethany Group before he went to SunCal, and that company also filed for bankruptcy.”

I mean, Geoff, you’ve either got just the largest brass-coated reproductive organs in the world or a huge bank account or both. Because in this passage you (a) indicate that you’ve relied exclusively on the Internet for your research, (b) refuse to acknowledge your first error, and (c) claim that you’ve stumbled across additional evidence to support your claim that Mensinger’s a one-man suicide bomber where real estate activity is concerned. And you say all this (“specious,” “a little time,” “browsing,” “a very short time”) in a way that’s calculated to suggest that proving your original claim (Mensinger wrecked SunCal) was easy, merely the kind of thing you do when you’re not smashing atoms in your home office or working out Goldbach’s conjecture.

But your proof doesn’t prove what you think it does. A great deal of research on my part helped me figure out what I think you’re really seeing.

Like a lot of companies, SunCal does its best to build firewalls between its many real estate projects by incorporating each as a separate business (they’re called “special-purpose entities”) so that a financial disaster in one doesn’t set off a world-ending conflagration that burns down the entire company. In SunCal’s case, the strategy worked as planned: when Lehman Brothers, SC’s partner in some 30 S-PEs, melted down in 2008, the damage was limited to those 30 or so entities. SunCal sought BK protection in those cases, working to extricate itself from the Lehman mess in order to restructure the deals and move forward.

But what’s your evidence that Mensinger caused any one of those BKs? Or, more to the point, that the entire division he managed went BK?

I can’t find any. So, I called SunCal, and spoke with David Soyka, the company’s senior vice president for public affairs.

Is SunCal bankrupt? Absolutely not. It’s not now and it never was. How about the division Steve Mensinger headed—the Multifamily Division? Did that go BK? That’s laughable. Laughably true? Absolutely untrue. Multifamily was shut down when the real estate market went upside down. How about some of Multifamily’s special-purpose entities? It never had any. The market tanked and we closed the division before it created any special-purpose entities. Reading Geoff West’s blogpost, Mensinger seems pretty dangerous–not the sort of guy you’d want around sharp knives or your checkbook. Steve is a great guy—a very knowledgeable guy, very experienced. Everyone here would say the same thing. He was very respected. Same with [Jim] Righeimer. Their departure was about the marketplace, not about their performance. Steve happened to be working at SunCal during a housing crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in this country since the 1930s. Like about 400 other people, all of them doing very good work at SunCal, he’s not working here now. When we see a recovery in the market, we’d like to work with him again. But this blogger says you guys went bankrupt. He’s pretty adamant about that. I’ll have to check with our corporate counsel, but we might take action against him on something like that. It’s absolutely false. Maybe he can show me some proof? You should ask him to show you the documents that show SunCal is bankrupt. He can’t, because there aren’t any. It’s an absolutely false claim. It’s crazy.

“Crazy”? The Bethany case you cite seems even more mental: see, Mensinger left Bethany in 2007, about two years before that company ran into financial trouble. You might just as reasonably argue that I was a harbinger of great evil because my birth (April 11, 1960) preceded by just 16 months the construction of the Berlin Wall and by three years the JFK assassination.

I’ve written before about the dangers of this brand of bad logic, so I won’t bore you with a reprise, except to say that just because one thing (e.g., my birth) precedes another thing (e.g., JFK’s assassination) does not mean that the first thing caused the second. Mensinger and Righeimer’s presence at a company that might have subsequently experienced financial trouble is not evidence that Mensinger and Righeimer drove “two divisions of SunCal Companies into the ground.” Establishing chronology is a snap; proving causality is trickier, and asserting it sometimes leads to libel suits.

I suspect you know all this–that despite your brave claim that you easily confirmed the facts that support your claim, it’s possible you realized your pants pockets were (evidence-wise) quite empty. Because you seem to develop mid-post an unusual (for you) sensitivity to the post-hoc problem. This newfound subtlety of mind emerges near the end of your July 1 piece, the post you begin by saying you’re not wrong, that Mensinger’s lawyer’s a “pit bull,” that Mensinger himself is a “bully.” “Clearly,” you write, “this is just one more attempt to silence a critic and, as I’ve said many, many times before, neither Mensinger nor Righeimer likes criticism.”

But that’s not where you end the post. Because, suddenly, you write in a way that suggests that it’s not so “clear” that this is just censorship. Your evolving explanation of Mensinger’s alleged bankruptcies at SunCal and Bethany is worth quoting at length:

The record does demonstrate that two companies in which he served as President subsequently filed for bankruptcy. I don’t know how much his presence at either of them contributed to those situations, but I imagine there are folks around who worked with him in those companies who could offer opinions. In my business experience, the President of an organization typically sets the course for the company and, in many cases, takes the helm and steers the organization on that course, making whatever corrections are necessary. I don’t know if he set the course to take them over the bankruptcy falls or not. Nor do I know if his hands were still at the wheel when they went over the brink.

See, now you “don’t know” if “his [Mensinger's] presence” “contributed to those situations.” And because you don’t know, you’re left to “imagine.” You extrapolate from your own “business experience” to assume how “an organization typically” works. But again (you say) you “don’t know” if that’s how it worked at SunCal or Bethany, “nor do [you] know if his [Mensinger’s] hands were still at the wheel” or (switching your vehicular metaphors here) “if he [Mensinger] set the course” of the marine craft that eventually went “over the bankruptcy falls,” etc., etc., etc.

That’s a lot of stipulation, and a hell of a long way from June 11. It’s just as long from where that same blogpost begins—with you being absolutely 100 percent right. And so I wonder if you wouldn’t have been wiser to simply say what’s likely true: that in your rush to dredge up dirt on a man whose policies you abhor, you got the story wrong–that the truth is Mensinger hasn’t wrecked two companies. He hasn’t even wrecked one.

Now, being wrong doesn’t mean that Mensinger ought to sue you for libel. I’m a First Amendment absolutist, so I don’t think anyone—especially a public figure—should sue for libel. The First Amendment says (in part), “Congress shall make no laws . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”—not, that is, “Congress should make some laws, or impose some reasonable restrictions, etc.” It says “no laws.” As the Bill of Rights goes, this is far more obvious and declarative than the Second Amendment about which your rifle-toters are generally so doggedly insistent and, of course, wrong.2

The good news is that there’s nothing inherently bad in being wrong. We’re all wrong sometimes. And readers (good ones, anyhow, grownups) often appreciate the sort of humility/honesty/candor that allows a writer to admit his mistakes. Ironically, declaring you’re wrong allows readers to know they can trust you to tell the truth. To say anything else—to spend 1,429 words talking about your free-speech rights, your courage as a critics, Mensinger’s putative authoritarian style, his bully-boy mentality, Righeimer and Mensinger’s “willingness to intimidate and threaten those who disagree with them,” to speak of the “genetic flaws” in their party, R&M’s threats, impatience, “short fuse,” and sometimes all of this at once (that M is “an impatient authoritarian and, sometimes, a bully”)—none of this makes you sound like Tom Paine. It makes you sound like a pain in the ass.

I said that readers are forgiving of our mistakes. But that’s not always true: when we insist we’re right even in the face of counter evidence, readers cease to regard us as trustworthy commentators. And where your side is concerned, there’s an unwillingness to deal honestly: I’m still waiting for Orange County Employees Association spokesperson Jennifer Muir to correct her sprawling catalogue of misstatements. But candor is in limited supply over there. One might even say they’ve run out of the stuff–that, in its own way, the union leadership and its allies in the blogosphere are themselves bankrupt.

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1. I.e., with footnotes.

2. I know the Supreme Court only recently decided I’m wrong on this, but I’ve got a kind of obsession here. The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” First, our forefathers were easily wigged out by large standing armies; in the absence of an army, they needed well-regulated militias–not just any militias, mind you–to protect the state. The inclusion of the phrase “well regulated Militia”–inclusion that required really awkward sentence structure, by the way–suggests to me (not the SC) a very narrow context for gun rights.


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Costa Mesa firefighters say they’ve got a real solution: Merge with county fire*

Sounding like Louis XV***, the OC Employees Association predicts that Costa Mesa can’t survive in a post-union environment.  Without the OCEA’s leadership, we will begin by consuming our beloved pets, and soon be satisfied with rat meat. Unquenchable fires will illuminate our dark countenances. Gangs of hoodlums driving cars with midgets balanced precariously on their (the automobiles’) exposed air filters will growl (same automobiles) along 19th Street in search of a much younger Mel Gibson. I will be posting this blog on a piece of tree. You will be unable to read actual words.

Compare this grim prophecy with the performance of the Costa Mesa Firefighters association. Last night, your CMFA reps stepped forward to unpack their plan to move firefighting and emergency services under the Orange County Fire Authority. The city figures the move could save Costa Mesa millions each year with no decline in quality. You can read CMFA’s description of the proposal here.

It’s not clear that this is the final deal–the council postponed a decision until after the vacation break****, and the firefighters themselves (while bullish on their plan) say they’re open to negotiating.

And that’s what’s really remarkable to behold here–the yawning chasm of humanity: the OCEA’s sternum-thumping appeals to fear/anxiety/the deluge (on the one side) and (on the other) the Costa Mesa Firefighters Association’s  low-profile studies  (underpinned by Excel spreadsheets) and nuanced language. I mean, consider this line alone, from the firefighters’ FAQ: “The financial challenges facing Costa Mesa constitute a threat as grave as any fire, and we are determined to be a part of the solution.”

“A part of the solution.” That sort of hope is terrifying to some, including my friend, the blogger Geoff West. When Costa Mesa terminated its own helicopter program in order to go in halvsies with Huntington Beach, Geoff predicted the Fourth of July would become Rwanda, ca. 1994. And after the firefighters’ Tuesday night presentation, Geoff couldn’t suppress his own rising despair–the police facing a staff reduction you can count on one hand, the firefighters proposing their own peaceful transition to the OCFA. It was all too much for one man to shoulder:

I can tell you from very recent first-hand personal experience that the residents and visitors to our city are not going to be served well by the reduced staffing levels. We are going to have an under-staffed police department that will, necessarily, be forced to work more overtime hours to meet the crime-fighting demands in our city. They will be exhausted by the continued extended schedules and, sadly, will likely begin to make mistakes because of the stress and pressure of those extended hours . . . . We can only hope that there are no serious incidents as a result of this short-staffing situation.

In this man, terror is like a muscle.

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* Full disclosure: Will Swaim helped CM firefighters write their FAQ, and feels a great deal of affection for these guys–not from any misplaced sense that they are the Heroes of 9-11 (about which maybe we can talk some other time**) but from the very real belief that their readiness to help solve the financial situation is (you’ll pardon the greeting-card sentiment) patriotic somehow, that this deal they’re proposing with the county springs from some understanding that they’re part of something much larger than their pension programs and days off.

** How about now? The whole 9-11 issue turns out to be remarkably relevant to any discussion of the pension problem, serving in many peoples’ minds as the Day Everything Pension-Related Changed–not merely because Americans felt (for a moment) bound primarily to nation rather than party, but because firefighters, police, and then just anybody claimed to be a “first-responder” in the fight against our barely visible enemy and was therefore (the metastasizing genus “first-responders”) due anything–everything–we (“non-responders,” I guess, mere subjects to be acted upon by the FRs) could give them. This school of thought (that 9-11 was the day on which Everything Pension-Related Changed) holds that it seemed vaguely unpatriotic to oppose offering FRs lifetime healthcare and vacation homes.

*** “Apres moi, le deluge,” he’s supposed to have said. Though not everyone agrees he said it–and, no, he wasn’t a firefighter–this is pretty clearly one of those “but he ought to have said it” situations.

**** Have a bitchen’ summer!

Ms. Judging: Nomoto’s decision in re Costa Mesa is baffling and, if we understand it, probably wrong

You knew on July 5 that Orange County Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann needed one of those–what are they called?–$3,000-per-week spokespersons. That was the day attorneys for both sides of Costa Mesa’s outsourcing streetfight politely listened to the judge, nodded in agreement, and then left her courtroom, each to declare victory.

Attorneys for the Costa Mesa Employee’s Association said the judge had slapped Costa Mesa. But the city said it had won, crowing in the headline of its press release, “Judge rules Costa Mesa can continue outsourcing process, but can’t lay off employees until all ‘proper procedures’ are followed.”

A transcript of the day’s proceedings seemed* to suggest the city had it right. Reading that 17-page document, the eyeball dilates on just 16 words. Assistant city attorney Harold Potter** asks the judge, “So you’re enjoining the city from doing what?” And the judge answers, “From laying off anyone without following proper procedures.”

This is confusing, see, because the judge doesn’t cite state law, but internal city procedure. And what’s weird is that the city is following a procedure that you’ll find in the city and union’s 2004 Memorandum of Understanding***. Section 14.2 of that agreement spells out exactly**** how outsourcing ought to work in Costa Mesa:

CONTRACTING OUT – It is further agreed that should a decision be made to contract out for a specific service which is at the time being performed by employees covered by this MOU, the employees affected will be given sufficient notice (a minimum of six months) in which to evaluate their own situation and plan for their future. To this end, the City will make every effort to transfer and utilize regular attrition in making the necessary adjustments. The City will assist employees in this endeavor through training and through preferential treatment (under meritorious consideration) when filing vacancies.

Now, of course, the union has decided that its representatives were (what? high? disambiguated?) simply out of their jurisprudential minds when they signed that MOU–that this is not merely a procedural matter, that in fact cities have no legal right to outsource work.

On July 15, Nomoto released her written decision, in which, it seemed,***** she too has changed positions. This is no longer a procedural issue, but a timing problem: Bloggers–at the Times, the Daily Pilot and Voice of OC–seem to agree that she has ruled Costa Mesa can’t outsource public employee jobs to private entities******* until the Costa Mesa Employee’s Association gets its day in court.

So here’s a prediction: The city won’t wait for that day to arrive. And city officials will have the law on their side.

Figuring that the judge has overreached her authority, the city will lean on former AG Bill Lockyer’s April 23, 2002, finding that California’s cities may indeed outsource to private-sector entities anything but public safety (e.g., police, fire fighting). Reading Lockyer’s decision, it’s a bit hard to envision what the city can’t outsource: the AG lists as examples hospital management, research and development, criminal law prosecution, bookstore management,“special services and advice in financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal, or administrative matters if such persons are specially trained and experienced and competent to perform the special services required,” and “the issuance and preparation of payroll checks.”

And, if we needed the clarification, Lockyer points out that “the legislative body”—in this case, the Costa Mesa city council–“may pay such compensation to these experts as it deems proper.”

The union will, of course, rush back to the judge’s courtroom to argue that the city is flouting her inerrant decision. But they will have their own words (in the MOU) and an AG’s rendering to contend with.********

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* There seems almost no way to avoid employing derivations of the word “seems” when discussing Judge Nomoto’s decision.

** Who’s got to have far too much fun introducing himself as “Harry.”

*** What’s referred to acronymically as an “MOU.”

**** (and in weirdly humane language, given the bureaucratic context in which it was written)

***** Ibid., * above.

****** The judge said the city can, in fact, shift work to public entities, e.g., the county or neighboring cities.

******* Ending with preposition. Cf. Churchill, Winston.

Disunion: 3 stories on TV labor no-shows

SWAIM SLEEPS WHILE COSTA MESA BURNS! There’ll be no televised showdown between blogger Will Swaim and any representative of the OC Employees Association. Inside OC host Rick Reiff had scheduled a July 20 taping in which Swaim would discuss Costa Mesa’s ongoing budget fight with OCEA General Manager/union boss Nick Berardino and/or union spokesperson Jennifer Muir. But according to Reiff, after several conversations with Berardino and Muir, the union officials “declined” to debate Swaim. Reiff would not elaborate. Swaim reaffirmed his willingness to debate the union’s representatives “anywhere, anytime”—and then promptly backtracked, saying he didn’t mean that literally, and should probably acknowledge that there are large parts of every day—“up to one third of the day, in fact”—when he does absolutely nothing but sleep. Otherwise, he said, he’d be reasonably flexible in trying to accommodate Berardino and Muir’s schedules.

SWAIM CRIES LIKE BABY, SAYS HE ALREADY MISSES LIKE A LOST LIMB OR IN-UTERO CHILD ‘THE ANSWERS I MIGHT HAVE HEARD, BUT WON’T NOW’ While most Americans were absorbed in the high-profile, practically made-for-television negotiations between President Barack Obama and House leader John Boehner (R-OH), a parallel drama unfolding 3,000 miles away ended abruptly when a last-minute attempt to cobble together a televised debate between a Costa Mesa CA blogger and union officials came to naught. Announcing that labor refused to debate journalist Will Swaim, Rick Reiff, host of the PBS television show Inside OC, said, “Naturally, I’m disappointed.” Swaim appeared near tears and his nose began to run when told he wouldn’t have the chance to ask union leader Nick Berardino and spokesperson Jennifer Muir to explain (1) why Muir won’t return Swaim’s (and Swaim’s colleagues’) several calls for clarification of the union’s countless* factual errors; (2) why Muir has failed to correct her assertion—untrue, we find out—that the council eats free meals* while laying off city workers**; (3) ditto for her error about the city manager’s car allowance*; (4) and for the date the city ordered badges for its newest councilmembers*; (5) how she, Berardino and other union officials feel about their just vampiric role in transforming city maintenance worker Huy Pham’s suicide into a public event when we kind of predicted from the beginning that there were other darker, completely/complexly/multivalent private forces at work there; (6) and speaking of the badges (No. 4, above), does it really strike Muir as relevant to imply that the city’s purchase of $175 badges is somehow Dickensian* while asking (she, Berardino, et al.) the city’s residents (mostly solid middle- and working-class) to fund pensions that not one of them (the residents) is likely to enjoy him/herself while having done a lifetime of similarly grueling work; (7) why Muir and Berardino keep saying Costa Mesa has “laid off half” its union workforce when we all know that’s simply not true*; (8) how much the union has given* to the campaigns of Wendy Leece, a Republican evangelical who is about as close to George W. Bush (all the politics and faux religiosity, minus the arrogant smirk) as one could imagine, and what kind of sense it makes for an ostensibly “liberal” union to support someone like that—except for, you know, Leece’s publicly expressed affection for the union employees on whose pay and benefits she votes while accepting contributions from same; (9) why the union won’t apologize to pint-sized Mayor Gary Monahan et al. for suggesting—weirdly—that the city’s decision to outsource labor contracts was the uni-causal event preceding Huy Pham’s March 17 suicide leap and/or fall from atop Costa Mesa City Hall*; (10) why the union thinks Costa Mesans ought to borrow the money the city needs to fill the gap between revenues (on the one hand) and expenses driven by rising pension indebtedness (on the other); (11) why the OCEA refuses to compromise while their comrades in other cities (including radical Berkeley) have made huge concessions in order to preserve jobs and balance budgets*; (12) whether inviting the OCEA-financed Voice of OC to press conferences is a little like Rupert Murdoch inviting the guys at Fox News to cover Rupert Murdoch; (13) why the union continues to advertise the former police chief’s resignation as absolute evidence that the city’s financial crisis is manufactured when the union’s own auditor said, no, in fact, it isn’t (manufactured, we mean); (14) when the union will acknowledge that its suggestion that city hall upgrades on such items as HVAC, carpet and paint do not constitute “luxuries”; (15) or that those upgrades are actually even “funded,” because though city hall is practically antique in its luxuries*, the union leadership’s bottomless appetite for more (more pay, more days off, more pension contributions from the taxpayers) makes it impossible to fund such common-sense improvements; (16) whether Muir really believes in her heart that (former Times editor and religion reporter) interim communications director Bill Lobdell is overpaid at $3k per week, given that Muir’s own boss makes nearly at least 70 percent more than that and has not yet penned anything like the labor equivalent of Lobdell’s highly regarded Losing My Religion*; whether they understand (Muir and Berardino) that Swaim regards it as obvious that their job as union officials is to help boost the pay and benies of their members, but that lying while doing so is, well, not the obvious rhetorical go-to; (17) what makes the bile rise in the throat when they hear councilmembers suggest that city workers ought to be held to the standards of their counterparts in private enterprise; (18) what they make of a Berkeley labor leader’s statement (“We’re hoping we can lead the way for other cities and show what can be done if you really establish a partnership” with city officials) given that they (Muir & Berardino & Co.) have approached the city council chambers as if they were entering the octagon; (19) whether it’s possible that the union effort to see the conflict in strictly binary terms (viz., Republican v. Democrat, evil v. good) is self-defeating, given that intelligent and reasonable people can sometimes disagree, and that disagreement here is really over math–numbers that show the the city just masticating its reserves in order to pay for a pension plan it can’t really afford? “Now, I guess I’ll go to my grave—or simple urn or Folgers coffee can, whatever—without answers to these and other pressing questions,” Swaim said—and then perked up (Swaim did) and asked hopefully, “Would you like to hear the other pressing questions?” “No,” we told him firmly, “we wouldn’t.” And we handed him a tissue.

UNION CALLS SWAIM ‘OVER THE TOP’ The people who called Mayor Gary Monahan “Murdering Monahan” after a city employee’s March 17 suicide, said they would not debate blogger Will Swaim because he is “over the top.” KOCE-TV host Rick Reiff would not comment on the union’s refusal to debate, but sources close to Reiff’s Inside OC public affairs show say Reiff told them that union officials charged Swaim with “engaging in personal attacks” on his blog, RepublicOfCostaMesa.com. “They seemed kinda freaked-out about the possibility of an actual face-to-face talk with [Swaim],” a source said. The union failed to return calls requesting comment for this report.

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1. Numbers are almost always countable by someone, and we don’t mean to suggest here that Muir’s misstatements of fact are literally infinite in number, but only that we stopped counting when it became apparent that the word “fact” doesn’t mean to Muir what it means to most other people—that is, something that is verifiable and beyond mere intuition/feeling/sensibility.

2a. She may have been thinking of this.

2b. We’re not bothered by the chronology—i.e., by Muir’s deep desire that we (her putative readers) see Costa Mesa’s (be-wreathed and reclining) councilmembers eating like ancient Romans while they (the councilmembers-as-Romans) turn thumbs down on desperate workers in the arena of the free market, that is to say the timing of these two separate phenomena—but by her assertion that the current council eats on the taxpayers’ dime. That assertion is false. But despite our efforts to alert her to (what even she would regard as) a really stupid error, Muir has refused to correct her own record.

3. Not $10,000/yr as Muir insists.

4. Feb. 9, not March 17. We wouldn’t even mention this simple difference because it’s the kind of hair-splitting that causes just massive channel-switching on TV news and perhaps here, too, except that Muir likes to pretend the city ordered hundreds of dollars’ worth of (what she calls) “jewel-encrusted badges” on March 17 because that’s the day (she asserts) city officials drove a maintenance worker to commit suicide.

6. Tale of Two Cities.

7. In one 33-second Repair Costa Mesa video ad, Muir’s team claims the Costa Mesa City Council has laid off half its workers, including firefighters and paramedics. In fact, no workers have been laid off, including firefighters and paramedics, though 213 employees (about 42% of the workforce, which is not half anymore) were given six-month notices that their jobs might be outsourced. Of those 213 employees, more than 90 are firefighters; the firefighters have asked the city to consider outsourcing the Costa Mesa Fire Department to the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA), in which case all firefighters simply become members of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association. If other jobs are outsourced, the city says it will require the companies with whom it ultimately contracts to interview and offer hiring preferences to city employees.

8. (directly or indirectly, i.e., through the union, its officials, members or allied individuals or organizations)

9. This question is actually a spin-off of question No. 5 above, of course, but worth asking in a slightly different way. Borrowing from mothers, interrogators and psychologists, reporters often ask a single question twisted just a wee bit in order (the journalist, anyhow) not so much to trap their subjects as perhaps to explore a theme in a multi-perspectival manner.

11. And no fair answering that the union won’t negotiate with “a gun to our heads,” even figuratively, when, in fact, having a literal weapon loaded, cocked and aimed at your head would be precisely the time you’d most like to negotiate. Then, too, there’s the fact that it’s Nick Beradino who has the symbolic armament aimed well above the necks of Costa Mesa residents. As we’ve already written here, “When Nick Berardino begins to talk, for instance, we know that what he’s complaining about (“a gun to our heads”) is weirdly parallel to how the citizens of Costa Mesa might feel about Nick himself: that the deals he’s cut with previous Costa Mesa city councils have enriched his members (that’s Nick’s job) but will destroy the city, and his campaign to terrorize the current council–with help from people like Jennifer Muir, Steve Lopez and Geoff West; the guy who threw a positively old-school brick-with-note through the window of leprechaun-sized mayor Gary Monahan’s Costa Mesa barChris Prevatt of Liberal OC, who has dubbed the same diminutive elected official ‘Murdering Monahan'; evangelical Republican councilmember Wendy Leece, who having voted again and again for rising pension and healthcare benefits, denounces her disinclined colleagues on moral grounds; the California Bytes (“A progressive blog about California”) contributor who crafted the headline ”One Dead After Costa Mesa Council Slashes Jobs”; whomever threatened to kill Righeimer & Mensinger after Huy Pham’s suicide or accident at City Hall, requiring a police escort to get the pair out of their council offices–that such a campaign reveals that Nick (a nickname, we’d observe, with roots far deeper and darker than F&F, in Satanism)  is the guy holding the gun.”

15. (though we hear that nicotine-stained ’70s paint and AC are hip again)

16. Swaim: Friend of Lobdell’s going way back, etc., full disclosure, and godfather of one of Lobdell’s boys (the first and we think best of breed), etc.

Apocalypse Never: Fourth of July revelers fail to burn city to ground

A few months back, Costa Mesa officials determined that the city’s multi-million-dollar helicopter program could be safely mothaballed in order to help balance the budget. Predictably, the council’s critics declared that this would bring to the city’s streets the kind of mayhem we haven’t seen since Protestants and Catholics went at it during the Hundred Years War. My own favorite council critic, blogger Geoff West, sounded positively Marxian (Karl, not Groucho) when he described the run-up to a Fourth of July without AirBorne Law Enforcement choppers beating at the air above a town only barely able to contain its rage/patriotism/pyromania:

Without A.B.L.E. in the air this weekend, they’re [the CMPD, he means] all going to have their hands full. As I type this late Thursday evening the illegal fireworks are already beginning – with two days to go before ANY fireworks may be legally discharged in our city. It’s going to be a very long weekend for Costa Mesa public safety folks.

That was Thursday night, Geoff West maybe laying in water, freeze-dried salisbury steaks and candles, anticipating Armageddon. And so it’s a shame that blogs don’t come with sound-effects because Geoff’s July Fifth dispatch from the front might have been heralded by a disappointed-sounding flugelhorn. Headline: “FIRE CHIEF REPORTS A QUIET 4TH.”

Well, how was your weekend? Safe and sane, I hope. According to Costa Mesa Interim Fire Chief Kirk Dominic this morning, it was a quiet weekend. Except for some trash fires caused by folks discarding hot fireworks in their trash cans, things were quiet from a fire response standpoint. That’s wonderful news. There were no structure fires reported.

But the evening was not entirely like the night of the Christ Child’s birth. In a section he called “EASTSIDE WAR ZONE,” Geoff reported “lots of illegal fireworks fired-off throughout the evening of the 4th, beginning before dark and continuing until just before midnight.”

New rule: “War zone” and “illegal fireworks” should almost never appear in the same sentence.

Letters from my friends on the Left!

Progressives/lefties/liberals are supposed to react like subjects chosen at random from a Vegas audience who are, on a spotlit stage, subsequently entranced by a tuxedoed entertainer with a vaguely medical- and/or professorial-sounding name and a pocket watch on a chain. We’re supposed to hear the word “union,” that is, and lose our minds–the logic and math centers of the brain suddenly flooded with images and sounds of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, child coal miners, black workers facing off against their non-unionized white brothers in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, Sacco and VanzettiSaul Alinsky, that TV commercial from my childhood in which honesthardworkingsouthernladies tell us (in song, no less) what it means to us and to them when we buy our products from such hellholes as Bangladesh and China. So I’m never surprised when my friends express their reservations about the Costa Mesa situation, where the Orange County Employee Association has launched an American Express Centurion-level media campaign to hypnotize us–not with a swinging watch but with code words (“union,” “workers,” “families,” “right-wing”) that assume that the workers and families who live as mere residents in Costa Mesa can survive alongside the pension system sucking dry their city’s wealth. I understand it–the mesmerization–because I’m subject to it too, and I take my friends’ questions seriously. Consider this one, for example, which arrived this morning:

Will: Liked your post on “parks and pensions.” Provocative—hit the sweet spot where informative becomes entertaining. I’m even coming round to your point of view on this. A while ago I actually heard a story on NPR about the Costa Mesa budget battles, and [Councilmember] Jim Righeimer sounded absolutely honest and forthright in his comments, while the union guy—can’t remember his name—sounded squirrelly. I guess what continues to bother me is the mass pink-slipping that started all this. That scared the [deleted] out of a lot of employees—at a time when there are few jobs out there for them to snap up in case the firings do go through. That looked like grandstanding on the part of the council. Otherwise…. I think you’re right about this mess. Coffee after the Fourth?

Pal: Coffee? Yes, please! The mass pink-slipping is weirdly/tragically/ironically a feature of union life, the result of a perk demanded by the union itself. Some (maybe not even many) of those pink-slipped won’t be let go, but in order for the city to get moving on any plan to cut costs by outsourcing services (about which more in a minute), city officials have to honor the six-month notification requirement in all union contracts. Me? My colleagues in the private sector? We rarely get notice. If my company begins gushing blood and the boss determines he needs to cut staff to save the company, we scavenge a cardboard box near the all-in-one copier/printer/fax, pack our [deleted], and we’re gone.* A couple of weeks would be nice to get our feces consolidated, maybe even a month. But that’s not always possible: If private-sector companies had to offer six months’ notice, they might not survive the short-term blood gushing. The entire place would go down, taking all 70 jobs with it for the failure to act quickly. It’s very Hamlet.

So, in the six-month window the city gave itself by pink slipping (beginning March 17–so, what, ending around September 17?), it has sent out RFPs (bizlang for “requests for proposal,” basically invitations asking outside organizations to propose satisfying a city need) for outsourcing such departments as fire. It has made a condition of any outsource that current city employees be given first right of refusal for employment. Those employees would transfer into the new organization without the rock ‘n’ roll benefits they may presently enjoy (four-day workweek, early retirement, something approaching full pay and health till death)–unless that’s what the new employer offers (as in the case of fire, where one possible outsource partner is the OC Fire Authority).

Now, let’s go back to March 17 for a moment and consider the possibility that, instead of pink-slipping people, city officials had simply underscored their already-announced intention to weigh outsourcing city functions. Costa Mesa would now have two problems: (1) employees would begin wigging out about job security–which is likely precisely what they did when someone (their supervisor or HR director, I imagine) handed them a manila envelope with a non-pink notification (further research on color required here) that they might not have a job in six months; (2) the city would begin the months-long RFP process, during which they would daily confront de-wigged employees and declining city finances, at the end of which process (the RFP) they’d still have to offer the now completely bald city employees six months’ notice—another half-year of hair loss and general fiscal degeneration. Please, at this point, recall Hamlet, above, who, I don’t need to remind you, loses an entire kingdom in a bloody every-man-and-woman-for-him/herself brawl involving swords/daggers/poison because he (Hamlet) refuses to dispatch Uncle Claudius when ordered to do so by his dead dad’s ghost and had the chance to satisfy his dad’s ghost’s demand in a very early act.

So, to sum: the mass pink-slipping, while apparently brutal and shocking, is in fact perhaps the happiest of all possible unhappy outcomes here—short of the city discovering that it has an oil deposit the size of Saudi Arabia’s beneath the empty plot of land known as Goat Hill–at which point the midget-railroad guys (not midget railroad-guys) with a dollar-a-year lease on that piece of sun-blasted heath would hire Jennifer Muir, the megaphonic but wildly attractive spokesperson of the Orange County Employee Association, to attack the city council as child-murderers and model-train-haters.

__________________

* In a May 18 post, I noted, “In other parts of the world, especially at the management level where union protection is rare, a different policy prevails–the policy of being handed a lightweight cardboard box that might once have held HammerMill® Copy Plus Copy Paper and being told you have 15 minutes to clear out your office while an uncomfortably silent and awkward corporate security officer or HR director watches to make sure that you don’t use that moment to dash off a hasty, poorly conceived and angry email for general distribution or make off with the team playbook.” And then, on June 20, as if to prove my point, former Costa Mesa Police Chief Steve Staveley was given the free use of his office after resigning–an interregnum Staveley used to dash off a letter that made him look anything but courageous.

When titans clash! Auditors disagree mildly over Costa Mesa finances

The union’s auditor came to town last week,* and all the union got was a bill for some $17,000** and a clearer sense that its war against the residents of Costa Mesa is purely philosophical.

The Orange County Employees Association had hoped the auditor would land the lethal blow. Instead, granted full access to Costa Mesa’s books, auditor Steve Foti concluded—just in time for the dramatic June 21 budget vote—that the city might be saving too much money for such eventualities as capital expenses, employee absences, and self-insurance.

That’s it. No demon-possessed Republicans with heads doing high-speed 360s atop roast beef-swollen necks. No Councilmember Jim Righeimer working feverishly under a small cone of light to plan the destruction of “working families.” No Mayor Gary Monahan going so far as to push one city maintenance worker from the roof of City Hall. No “hidden pots of money,” as union spokesperson Jennifer Muir puts it. Just a bespectacled auditor from San Francisco clearing his throat to alert us to the fact that the city might have saved more than is necessary in some areas of the budget.

Muir and her colleagues at Orange County Employees Association HQ in Santa Ana immediately seized on the auditor’s meager finding as evidence of the council’s perfidy—and as a kind of treasure chest that must be tapped in order to fund pensions and benefit packages that (polls suggest) most of us believe are excessive.

We believe that because we’ve watched successive budget deficits suck down the very reserves Foti says are “above average.” Indeed, just a month ago, Moody’s, the international credit rating agency, downgraded Costa Mesa’s credit precisely because the same reserves are too low.***

The philosophical disagreement between Foti and Moody’s isn’t some yawning chasm across which no mere mortal could possibly see the other side. Moody’s said the city is slightly under-reserved; Foti said Costa Mesa’s reserves put it on the high side of normal. It’s only the union that tries to magnify this honest disagreement into an apocalyptic showdown between the unionized forces of Jesus Christ on a white unicorn or man-faced sheep vs. a multi-headed Whore of Babylon operating inside City Hall.

It’s possible we side with Moody’s—and therefore with the city council majority—because we actually hang around Costa Mesa. We can see what Foti probably didn’t: that years of rising pensions and healthcare for city employees has robbed the city of its ability to fund streets, parks and such buildings as City Hall.

You can see the misplaced priorities if you take a walk, as we did this week, across the athletic fields at Estancia High School—the hard-packed dirt and weeds next to the bathrooms that serve the adjacent stadium. In a city notoriously short of parks, schools playgrounds have become the default practice fields of many organized youth sports and adult leagues. For a fee, the Pop Warner and AYSO kids can stomp Estancia’s sod into something like asphalt. And they do. This is no verdant glen, no playing field of Eton; it’s Tom Joad’s Oklahoma. There are, as one local put it, “simply too many feet.” Why? Because the kids have got no place else to go, because—after paying for salaries and pensions—there’s no cash left for new parks, and little money remaining to support existing parks.

The city’s own brief experiment in keeping up athletic fields ended two years ago when, financially strapped, the City of Costa Mesa made a choice: it could continue to weed, water and fertilize its Farm Sports Complex, or it could cut the maintenance expense, let the field return to its natural/fallow weedy state—and push the savings into pension and healthcare for city workers. It chose the latter. That decision is now etched in the landscape, a kind of horticultural “drop dead” from the Orange County Employees Association to Costa Mesa’s kids.

Ditto for the city’s streets—already crappy, and now by some estimates just five years from failure—and for its City Hall, where such renovations as air-conditioning and heating are delayed year after year, and dismissed recently by Muir’s high-priced union PR team as luxuries: “[F]east your eyes on the proposed budget released by the city last week. According to the official budget, millions in new paint and carpet is still planned!” Still planned, still unfunded.

So, we thank Mr. Foti for confirming that the city “is better than average where they’re sitting financially at this point,” though “not in a great financial position.”

We think that means we’re better off than many other cities (hello, Vallejo!), but could be doing much better. If so, we think so, too. We’d like to start by living within our means. That would indicate an end to unfunded—unfundable—pension and benefit programs that force us to sacrifice the streets and parks that make Costa Mesa livable.

Streets? Parks? They may as well be dipped in gold and filled with cash so far as the OCEA is concerned. Instead, the union would have us tap reserve accounts to fund the ongoing costs of employee pensions and benefits. But that’s a one-time solution—the sort of sleight-of-hand business savvy that created the U.S. housing bubble and subsequent economic meltdown; the kind of negligent budgeting that had California add costly programs based on the expectation that the late 1990s run-up in dot-com stocks would last forever. What happens next year when, because Costa Mesa has still failed to cap the city’s obligation vis-à-vis ongoing employee costs, the operating expense has risen again—and this time there are no reserves to tap? When we’re confronted with failing parks, streets and buildings? Faced with declining sales tax revenue?

Moody’s, of course, will go nuts. It’s the one thing their May report warns against. “WHAT COULD MAKE THE RATING GO DOWN?” it asks in admonitory upper-case letters. It answers its own question in upper/lower-case letters that seem like a ghost whispering a laconic warning: “Continued operating deficits. Further tax base decline.”

At that point, one imagines, we’d have neither the sustainable city we want—the leafy, well-paved metropolis we envision—nor the cash to pay for employee pensions and benefits the union says are essential. We’d have the worst of both worlds: potholed streets, closed parks, a City Hall in such disrepair that there will be no roof from which to jump, and no pension funds to mail retirees. On the other hand, we’ll all be miserable together. Which is nice.

 _________________________

* We’re speaking figuratively here. He spoke with reporters via telephone.

** Steve Foti told Republic of Costa Mesa web editor Janelle Flores that “the Costa Mesa project was bid at $17,500 (about 100 hours) due to the scope of work that was requested.” We’re not clear that that was the final bill.

*** Unlike some cities, Costa Mesa is unusually dependent on sales tax revenue; Moody’s said the city’s “weakened financial profile” was a result of “above average exposure to volatile sales tax revenue and low reserves given its revenue structure.” Translation: cities that rely on sales taxes from, say, South Coast Plaza are almost naked when the economy goes cold as this one has; such cities would be wise to put on a sweater.

We’re No. 1! Costa Mesa union still more radical than Berkeley’s

There was a time when you could count on The People’s Republic of Berkeley to raise high the red banner. Berkeley launched the Free Speech Movement that kickstarted the American anti-war movement in the 1960s. Early adopters of every progressive manner/policy/style, the people and/or government of Berkeley have supported unions of sex workers, free needle programs, and the development of a municipal foreign policy with advisory boards handling subjects from global trade to weapons proliferation. They stipulated the superiority of women vis-a-vis men and of women of color vis-a-vis white women and of poor women of color vis-a-vis wealthier women of color. Demanded leg hair on those women. And dresses on men. Mandatory clown suits on businessmen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.* Hacky sacks. A revolution is not a tea party but a tea party may be revolutionary. Berets. Filterless cigarettes. Speech codes. Jean Genet’s burglary as “liberation.” Murder as a a logical extension of political speech. Judy Chicago. The need to break eggs in order to cook up a revolutionary omelette. The Unibomber. Heterosexual sex as rape. And certainly–most importantly–the inevitability/invariability of violence between all managers and workers, that is, the universality of class conflict.

But no longer. Last week, the union representing Berkeley’s city workers agreed to salary and pension cuts they hope will save their city–and at least some of the jobs of their colleagues.

Why would Berkeleyites do such a thing?

“A lot of the media represent us as being greedy,” Gladys Gray, president of the executive committee of Service Employees International Union 1021, told the Berkeley City Council June 14. “We see what’s going on in the economy . . . we are willing to give back to the city and help balance this budget.”

Sandra Lewis, also on the SEIU Committee, said she believed the agreement demonstrated what could be done when unions and cities collaborate. “We’re hoping we can lead the way for other cities and show what can be done if you really establish a partnership.”

We hope so too. But we have our doubts.

Contrast Berkeley’s willingness to grapple with the mathematics of the pension crisis with our own Costa Mesa where, in a county infamous for its Neanderthal Republicans, we confront union leaders so radical they see reality itself as the enemy.

In one–what’s the word?–grotesque example of its antagonism to truth, the Orange County Employees Association leadership continues to attempt to pin the death of a city worker on the council majority’s budget cuts. Struggling to establish its respect for honest communication, the OCEA hired former Register reporter Jennifer Muir to serve as its spokesperson; but truth is kryptonitic to Muir. She continues to repeat as facts several errors we cleared up two weeks ago.

Then, early this week, there was the awkward showdown between Muir and the OCEA’s own auditor.

In order to prove that the council majority has fabricated a financial crisis to pursue its destruction of the public employee union, Muir’s boss at OCEA hired an outside firm to examine Costa Mesa’s books. With a key budget vote looming Tuesday, Muir handpicked local reporters to participate in a conference call with that auditor, Steve Foti of Harvey M. Rose Associates.

According to KPCC, Foti told the reporters “there’s no indication that the city council has tried to hide money to make the budget situation look more dire and force layoffs.” That did not stop Muir, KPCC reported: “Jennifer Muir of the Orange County Employees Association — the group that hired Foti to look at the budget — disagrees. ‘While he wouldn’t use the term “hidden money,” we certainly would,’ Muir says.”

Of course, she would.**

Muir went on to contradict her own auditor at every opportunity–at the LiberalOC (“This report confirms that the Costa Mesa City Council majority has been hiding money to create a manufactured budget crisis – all to advance their political agenda,” she said), at OC Weekly, in the Daily Pilot (“Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the OCEA, said although Foti had done an ‘independent audit’ of Costa Mesa’s finances, ‘We do believe that the [majority] City Council intentionally manipulated numbers'”).

What’s sad, of course, is that all of Muir’s rhetorical craziness*** has generated a distracting controversy around information that may still generate  a really valuable–and honest–conversation about the budget. Because what Foti actually laid bare is a philosophical disagreement about how much money the city ought to save–or “reserve,” in the language of city government–for such things as capital expenses and insurance. We’ve borrowed the best summary of these reserves from our friend Geoff West***:

We don’t need to ascribe evil motives to the council majority in order to have a candid discussion about whether these reserves are “above average,” as Foti suggests, or reasonable precautions, as many of the rest of us believe–whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives. In some ways, that conversation is less dramatic than the high-octane Saturday-morning cartoon rhetoric emanating from Muir’s exhaust pipe; but its implications–can Costa Mesa survive by spending its reserves to fund pension programs that appear to some of us as just unrealistic?–are absolutely dead serious.

_________________

* This one is actually from Jello Biafra’s never-ending-campaign-for-Mayor-of-San-Francisco-as-performance-art–and not, therefore, strictly speaking, Berkeley–but you see the point. And, though a businessman in Costa Mesa myself, I’d support this as a dramatic improvement over Casual Fridays.

** It’s pretty clear that Muir hopes to leverage legitimate public mistrust of government by suggesting that Costa Mesa city officials aren’t dealing honestly with their constituents. That’s fair when government officials lie, but that’s not the case here. Indeed, its arguable that the opposite is true, that it’s Muir who’s lying, or at least, mistaken–seeing liars everywhere because she is (if only subconsciously) aware that she herself has come untethered from the truth. She speaks so frequently of  “hidden truths,” “secret meetings,” “secret no-bid contracts,” “hidden pots of money” and  “hidden money” that you have to wonder if keeping quiet about the (necessarily) secret meetings and (less necessarily) hidden money in and around OCEA headquarters in Santa Ana makes her uneasy–if she’s bugged subconsciously, we mean, by the knowledge that her own organization is not being completely candid about its own high-dollar campaign to destroy the current city council in order to preserve its members’ kick-ass pension and benefits packages.

*** Ibid.

**** Apologies to Geoff West: We didn’t ask his permission to borrow this and we don’t want to right now because it’s nearly 2 in the morning on Saturday, and he’s had a hell of week–practically living on a cot at City Hall doing a really remarkable job of covering much of this stuff while the rest of us were watching reruns of Green Acres or whatever.

This guy was running your police department?!

Whatever else he was, former Costa Mesa police chief Steve Staveley was no diplomat.

Staveley resigned today via one of those emails you hammer out with hooflike hands and then delete* because it’ll otherwise come up–like a corpse you only half buried–in future job interviews:

“So, Steve, the good news is we’ve run your background and there’s no child molestation–which is nice, like we say–but there’s this fuck-you letter or, really, email to your former employer, dated six-twenty-eleven, and some of us–not me, not necessarily any of us here at this table, mind you–but some others might regard you as a piece of heavy armament rolling unleashed about the deck of our storm-tossed ship of state, four-wheeling across the splayed appendages of, say, the city manager here, or maybe the city councilmembers and causing just ungodly injury to our entire deal here, not to mention scaring the bejesus out of the civilians.

“Here’s the email, and we’re sure that it’s maybe requiring just a bit of context–some background, if you will. Let’s start here, this sentence here. Will you just read that line, Steve?”

Just before leaving on a very short trip to the river on the 16 of June, I was informed that all professional employees would be moving to 5/8s.

“Now, two problems, or not ‘problems’ maybe, but let’s call them ‘issues’ we’d like to just clear up. First, do we understand you to be complaining here that maybe the city council charged with rectifying a city’s budget, that that body of men and women ruined your trip to the river–we assume in Southern California you’re talking about the Colorado River?– because they brought up a finance question while you were, I don’t know, packing up the boat and hauling an ice chest out to the SUV? Because it sounds like you’re–I don’t want to say ‘whining’–upset about having to pause out front of La Casa Staveley to take a call on the Blackberry about the city budget, a call you regard as nowhere near so important as whether you’re going to be able to see out the back window. And we, you know, just want to be completely clear that sometimes management–which comes with undeniable perks–is also attended by, well, peculiar burdens, such as the possibility that a finance question might similarly arise here and won’t wait for you to return from a family outing God knows where.

“And regarding the  5/8: we assume there that you’re–again–upset or maybe ‘chagrined’ is the better word about the council’s recommendation that having your non-sworn department staff–‘pistol-free,’ we call them here–work a standard American workweek. Because we like to think that we’re pretty progressive here–just last week, we were all over to the mayor’s house to install those solar-powered lawn lamps–and we feel like it’s possible the five-day workweek isn’t, what, Dickensian, exactly, that it’s not like we’re asking the folks manning the phones over at the PD to strap on leg irons and row this fucking barge across that windless lake over the back of my shoulders here. I see you looking at it with longing. But hold on.

“Because–humor us for a minute longer–and read this line of your email, will you?

If you let council people meddle is such small matters, is it long before they tell us who we can cite, or arrest, or require us to release or whose burg gets investigated  – I think not. It is simply a step to corruption and I won’t play in that arena.

“Thank you, Steve. Now, probably with the benefit of 50/50 hindsight . . . . What’s that? Oh, 20/20 then, I was thinking it was better my way, but, yes, with the advantage of hindsight–that is, the benefit of being able to look, if not actually go, back–you might read this and think, ‘Goddamn, I do wish I hadn’t made the argument from an absurd conclusion’–what they teach the junior high school kids here as ‘reductio ad absurdum.’ Because it sure appears to us more likely that it’s indeed possible for a city council to demand certain staffing changes like the five-day workweek  for their municipal departments’ employees without completely losing their goddamn minds and creating some kind of Orwellian state in which the sun never rises and men in coveralls start wheat-pasting posters with the face of Big Brother on the sides of our fading downtown and telling you–how did you put it?–‘who we can cite or arrest,’ which just probably even to you here now sounds, well, almost nuts, am I right? A little hyperbolic?

“Now (same email) we’ve highlighted in green–color of the local football squad, I like to joke–a few key words and phrases, adjectives, mostly, you use to describe your former employer. I’d like you to read each one of those, pausing in between lest it sound like a run-on sentence and I don’t want to be stuffing your piehole here with grotesque semantic errors, just your own words, so if you would, please, read your own words.”

Off-the-wall biases. Meddling. They have in essence lied. Completely unethical and immoral behavior. They are in my opinion incompetent, unskilled and unethical. The majority either lies or are so lacking in the necessary skills that they actually believe the junk they say. Weak. Lacks courage. Incompetence. Rude and ill mannered and frequently boorish. Complete ignorance and incompetence.

“I hope you’re starting to fix the horizontal hold on the picture I am trying to broadcast here, Steve, that we think your resume is among the best we’ve seen, but that we’re all just a little worried about handing you a gun–or maybe even just a desktop computer with intranet access to your own staff–and then having that equipment turned business-end on the very people who brought you in here. And you may ask why, at this point in our confab, we–all the men and women on this side of the table, I mean–are pulling out our driver’s licenses. It’s because you’re a cop, Steve. Just kidding: I told them all I was going to tell you that. But it’s not true. We’re pulling out our DLs–pardon my picture; I had the flu that day–to show you upfront that, yes, we are indeed some of us several years your junior but want to assure you that that doesn’t make us morons or retards. Can I say ‘retards,’ Steve? That while deferential to our seniors–this is heartland America, Steve–we don’t believe that age necessarily confers wisdom. ‘Necessarily’ being the key modifier here. And there are just parts of your email here that seem to suggest that time has not smoothed away the sharp-edges of your temper. Indeed, this line here–no, never mind, I’ll read it myself because I want to exercise my Abe Simpson impersonation-this line here makes you sound like the old guy who takes pictures of peoples’ dogs crapping on his front lawn: ‘When the majority of this council were busy playing in sand boxes in their mommies [sic] backyard [sic], I was a policeman.’ Now, ‘mommies’ is right, except that you wanted to add an apostrophe there to indicate that the ‘backyards’ that follow are in their (the mommies) possession . . . . But we’re not hiring you for City Hall grammarian. That’s unofficially my job–or ‘gig,’ as the kids would have it–and that’s not really my point or raison d’être as it were here, which is, instead, the fact that, for a guy who speaks often and highly–and we’re saying ‘deservedly’ so, or we wouldn’t have flown you out here for this–about his leadership skills, his ‘mentoring’ chops, you sure as hell are quick with ridicule and a kind of just bizarre agism that makes you sound more cranky than distinguished. And we’re big on distinguished here, Steve. With the fast-flowing out-migration of youth, we’re pretty much left with ‘distinguished’ as a key industrial component. See, the higher road, the pathway we’d like to see a police chief trudge would have been to excuse yourself from this former position–torturous as it must have been for a man of your deep experience and self-reported wisdom–to resign with a sort of nod to the philosophical differences that separated you and the men and women to whom you reported. Because, see, subordination–antonym of ‘insubordination’–begins at the top: you cannot expect your braves to be respectful if their chief is just, well, losing shit out of the top of his well-feathered headdress via electronic communication. Which is just my opinion–and I don’t mean ‘opinion’ in the way you use the word here–‘They are in my opinion incompetent, unskilled and unethical’–which makes it sound like you’ve just stripped off your uniform and applied an entire jar of K-Y to your person in order to slip from the responsibility of the allegations that follow. That phrase–‘in my opinion’–makes it appear, once again, that you’re the kind of fellow who might sit out in the bushes of a night throwing rocks at my house because we disagreed about office-supply order at the PD.
“I’m being urged to move on–not, mind you, because time is short but because I can read in the glassy eyes of my colleagues here that I (we) have made my (our) point–and so let’s talk about one last thing and that is the question of your basic policing skills which I think are revealed here . . . and here. Would you read those lines for us?”

It’s very clear to me that there is no fiscal crisis in the City of Costa Mesa . . . . [A]nd he is a good guy, and not deserving of this situation. In fact, I think in the right circumstance (and this is not) he has the potential to be a great CM.

Now, play detective for a moment here and tell me why we’ve asked you to read those two lines or, rather, don’t bother because I’m going to tell you right now on account of my own internal gyroscope just humming with delight that we’ve got you–a man who said of his former employers in a public communication, ‘The council majority does not know more about the subject of leadership . . . or serving as an elected than do I,’ which we absolutely know right here in the box–you’ll notice that I’m tapping my heart here, Steve–absolutely know that you meant with a kind of humility that would not permit you to speak an untruth about the relative merits of your experience and the meager talents of those around you.

“So, in the first sentence, you allege that your former employers ginned up a financial crisis that didn’t really exist. In that second sentence you’re speaking about whom? Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch. Now, see, Hatch is a city manager of some repute–you yourself write that ‘he is a good guy’ who ‘has the potential to be a great CM”–which is high praise coming from so lofty a public figure as yourself, as you say. And right after you hit ‘send’ on your email–like within the time it takes to say ‘Go to hell, Steve Staveley,”‘ this good guy Hatch hits ‘send’ on his own email and says he’s ‘shocked and saddened’ by your ‘unprofessional’ email, and, yes, he says, the city does confront a real financial crisis. And this Hatch doesn’t just make the assertion, he offers some–what do you policemen call it?–evidence to back up his point, says the city has eaten up half its reserves in the last three years trying to cover the yawning chasm between revenues and expenses. And though utterly surprised by your resignation, Hatch says, guess what, he’s got a guy ready to step into your desk while the coffee in your cup is still making little whitecaps from your abrupt exit.

“So there’s that, vis-à-vis the subject of evidence. And then this, too: that you allude to corruption inside City Hall. In one place here you compare Costa Mesa to Bell, California, a city in which the officials were in fact arrested and hauled out in cuffs by grim-looking men and women in windbreakers and industrial-soled boots. You admonish your underlings to ‘keep your eyes open. The council majority plays fast and lose’–you meant ‘loose’ right there–‘with the law and ethics and I am certain as individuals they will step over the line and it won’t be long before the DA or more likely the AGs office comes knocking on the door. When that happens I know for a fact that you will handle yourselves professionally, as you always do. While such circumstance will be hard to take, there is a positive side it – will prevent Costa Mesa from following straight to Bell.’

“Now, I can tell you we just scoured your email with everything but Bar Keeper’s Friend and couldn’t find a shred of what you might call evidence–or as it’s called in academic circles ‘support’–for such a claim. Indeed, Hatch, in his response, says you’re dead wrong. And not just in his opinion, notice, but in some very strong language–says, ‘If he’–he means you, Steve–‘If he doesn’t have any evidence, his allegations are simply libelous and I assume intended to inflame the police department and the community.’

“So, in addition to everything else we might worry about–loose armament on the aforementioned deck of ship of state, and etc.–we’ve got this hanging over us, that in hiring you we’d be employing a guy who comes in here like Marley’s Ghost–you remember that bechained character in A Christmas Carol, of course, because you’ve been around for so long–like that ghost hauling behind him chains of just life-stopping judicial import. A lawsuit, I mean.  A suit for defamation brought by your former employer. You can see how the public–the voters in this and in nearby burgs–might regard that as a serious oversight on our part.

“And finally there’s this weirdness buried like a an improvised explosive device in your email: that after telling your subordinates to basically take up arms–pitchforks, from the sound of your missive–you admit that on at least one of the council majority’s key planks, the thing they’ve practically tattooed on their broad foreheads (Councilmember Steve Mensinger has a noggin like something dragged up here from Easter Island), you . . . agree . . . with . . . them.  ‘One of the interesting elements of this whole thing,’ you write, and here you mean ‘things,’–‘is I happen to agree that we need a two-tier retirement system. Two-tier because the courts will never allow the current system to be taken from current vested employees. I must have said before some 1,500 to 2,000 police officers in the past 10 years – all of them leaders and managers that 3% at 50 was a great boon to me personally but the worst thing we have done to policing.’

“So not only are you figuratively defecating on the heads of the council majority, but similarly evacuating your bowels with whatever you’ve got left on the poor sons of bitches coming into PD after you. You got yours. Everyone else can–what do they say out there in Salina?–suck hind teat. That’s the nipple nearest the momma pig’s anus, and not, we’re given to understand, a repository of the freshest-tasting milk.

“So you’ve given us much to think about, and we don’t want you to believe that we hauled you all the way out here to cow country just to explain this email, this single, exceptional act in what we have to believe–because you say so–is an otherwise stellar career. And so we’ll comfort ourselves in knowing that you wrote all this not because of your just unfathomable courage–which we couldn’t measure with a laser, it’s that universal in dimension–I say we’ll comfort ourselves knowing that you never figured on wanting another job anyhow. After all this talk about strong leadership and courage, you had to write this stuff on your way out the door and then announce, ‘I do not expect at my age to have another chiefs job’–and there you meant ‘chief’s,’ because the ‘job’ belongs to the ‘chief’–which, as I read it now, with you here, staring into my eyes that way, I can see maybe you didn’t mean, either.”

________________________

* We’ve already written about the science of human resources, where termination procedures are designed to limit this source of outcome, both for the protection of the organization as well as the subject him/herself. That procedure includes being handed a lightweight cardboard box that might recently have held HammerMill® Copy Plus Copy Paper and being told you have 15 minutes to clear out your office while an uncomfortably silent and awkward corporate security officer or HR director watches to make sure that you don’t use that moment to dash off a hasty, poorly conceived and angry email for general distribution or make off with the team playbook.

CEO’s letter of recommendation re police chief: ‘reckless,’ ‘unprofessional’

Press release from Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch:

Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch ‘shocked and saddened’ by interim police chief’s resignation letter over proposed 3.5% budget cut; new interim chief hired 

The following is a statement from Costa Mesa Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch:

I am shocked and saddened by the unprofessional resignation letter sent today by interim Police Chief Steve Staveley to our police department.

I know that Mr. Staveley is angry at some of the changes being proposed for the police department, but this reckless parting shot does not help our organization or the community. Since his incautious and potentially libelous words have the capacity to do harm to our community, I’ve responded personally below to his allegations.

But first, I wanted to underscore that Costa Mesa will be fine—we are debating a 3.5% cut in our police department budget. We will remain safe.

And knowing the differences that stood between Mr. Staveley and myself, I had been interviewing for a replacement interim police chief while the search concluded for a permanent police chief. Today I hired Dennis Kies, former La Habra police chief, for the interim position. He has 35 years of law enforcement experience and will provide a steady hand.

Within the next couple of weeks, I expect to hire a permanent police chief. The finalists for the position are all top members of the law enforcement community and bring with them many innovative—and some old-fashioned—ideas for policing in the 21st century.

We will get through this challenging period and, with the help of our police chief and the fine men and women of our police department, we will continue to make Costa Mesa a safe city that scores high marks from residents, the business community and visitors.

As for the individual allegations:

Mr. Staveley’s base contention is that the budget crisis in Costa Mesa doesn’t exist. This just isn’t true—and anyone who follows the news knows that cities across California, from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond, are struggling with how to bridge large budget gaps created by drops in revenue and steeply rising pension costs. Like Costa Mesa, many cities have had to propose cuts in public safety—and I’m sure many more municipalities will follow. The money just isn’t there at this time.

Costa Mesa’s financial numbers are simple and alarming. Our City has used more than $33 million of its reserves since 2008 and, within the next several years, faces the prospect of using 25% of its budget just to cover pension costs. In recent years, we’ve eliminated more than 140 positions and cut some of our services to the bone—and still have spent significantly more money than we’ve taken in.

Costa Mesa is in a financial crisis.

For next fiscal year, we are asking the police department to cut just 3.5% from its budget. I’ve tried as much as possible to keep budget cuts away from public safety. We, along with a respected consultant, have developed a plan to maintain the same level of patrol hours while increasing the number of non-sworn personnel for support. In some areas, the level of service won’t be the same for residents and the business community, but unfortunately, this is what we can afford. And I feel strongly that a 3.5% cut—about $1.35 million for the next fiscal year—in the police department budget during these times is reasonable and our community will remain safe. I live here with my wife and daughters. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize their safety. 

Mr. Staveley is correct that I’m asking non-sworn personnel to work five days a week. For the City, it’s more productive, for the most part, to have a five-day a week schedule for its employees—similar to the private sector. I don’t think most people outside of government would have a problem with this. Many of our employees work five days a week now without complaint. I haven’t asked sworn personnel to work five days a week.

If Mr. Staveley has any evidence that anyone on the council is corrupt, he should have come forward with any evidence immediately. If he doesn’t have any evidence, his allegations are simply  libelous and I assume intended to inflame the police department and the community. I’ve never seen any council member do anything that was corrupt or against the law. If I did, I would report that council member to the authorities immediately.

Mr. Staveley says Costa Mesa is heading toward being the next Bell. In fact, we are the anti-Bell. In my nearly four months as CEO, I can say that I’ve seen no City that has worked harder and make tougher budget decisions to make sure its finances got back on track. And in the process, we’ve done it with a transparency that’s been second-to-none.