Tag Archives: Geoff West

Congratulations to Costa Mesa pension winners!

Sixty-five City Hall retirees are pulling down annual pensions of more than $100,000, according to California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) documents released to the website Fix Pensions First.

The total annual cost of the 65 pensions: $8,183,946.24.

News that membership in Costa Mesa’s $100k Club had risen by 50 percent in just one year came a week after CalPERS announced that its 2011 investments earned just 1.1 percent, far off the agency’s projected gain of 7.75 percent.

That collision–of poor investment returns and rising pension costs–have created a cash-flow crisis for many California cities and the state itself. When CalPERS’ returns can’t cover pension costs, participants (including cities, counties, the California state university system) have to pay the difference. In 2000, Costa Mesa paid CalPERS $5 million to cover the delta; in 2011, CalPERS asked the city to pay a little over $18 million.

You’d think such numbers would make it impossible for union leaders to maintain their central political claim–that the council majority has cooked the city’s books in order to generate a kind of hologramic financial crisis. You’d be wrong. Orange County Employees Association spokesperson Jennifer Muir continues to assert that “the Costa Mesa City Council majority has been hiding money to create a manufactured budget crisis”—despite the fact that her organization’s handpicked auditor looked over the city’s book and denies the claim. Just a few months ago, pro-union blogger Geoff West echoed that claim: Councilman Jim Righeimer’s “fabricates a fiscal crisis and cooks up the ‘outsourcing’ fiasco.”

But evidence mounts that the crisis is real. And now union members and allies are beginning to acknowledge the need to compromise. “Some of us think they [union leaders] could have handled this differently, that saying there’s no problem was just dumb. There’s obviously a problem,” a union member told Republic of Costa Mesa.

Even Geoff West has–remarkably–changed course. “There is NO doubt in my mind,” he wrote in November,

that our current pensions situation has our city in a tough spot. The word “unsustainable” keeps being tossed around and, much as I’d like to throw it right back in the faces of those who use it as an oratorical cudgel, I can’t. I believe that something MUST be done to address the ongoing costs of our public employee pensions . . . .

When West reveals the capacity to learn, we may shudder, seeing in his about-face evidence of the End Times. We can take solace in the fact that the union leadership will find some way to re-read CalPERS’ numbers. They’ll point (perhaps) to the fact that among California’s Top 10 pension earners, not one is from Costa Mesa. They’ll see Bruce Malkenhorst, a former Vernon city official whose pension is a remarkable $530,268.24 per year. They’ll see an ex-sanitation official whose pension is nearly $300k. They’ll see these men and others and say, “We could be worse.”

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The Amazing Geoff West! Getting it wrong, but doing it often*

You can be wrong occasionally and still be trustworthy. And then you can be so consistently off-target that you go pro.

Take Jeron Criswell King, the 1960s and ’70s psychic who, as “The Amazing Criswell,” became a pop-culture phenom on the basis of his wildly inaccurate predictions. The mysterious space ray that Criswell predicted would hit Denver on June 9, 1989, and transform metal into rubber never happened. Same for the world-ending mass cannibalism Criswell predicted for August 18, 1999; master-planned gay cities (hello, Irvine!); and Castro’s August 9, 1970, assassination.

All of this reminds us of pro-union blogger Geoff West’s “A Bubbling Cauldron.” Like Criswell, Geoff is famous for being wrong; in a three-way race, we’d pick Criswell to win, Orange County Employees Association spokesperson Jennifer Muir to place and West to show.

Two weeks ago, under his November 3 headline “PAVING OVER FAIRVIEW PARK?” West reported, “It is rumored that the November 16th meeting of the Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commission will include a request to pave over part of the vernal pools at Fairview Park—a protected habitat for the San Diego fairy shrimp.”

West’s revelation of this “desecration” of the “Jewel of Costa Mesa” would have been a real contribution to public discourse if it were true. But it wasn’t. Nor was his assertion in the same post that this attack on Mother Nature “has the stench of [Councilmember] Steve Mensinger all over it.”

The rumor that Mensinger wanted to destroy Fairview was no surprise to West because (West writes) Mensinger

is also a developer and those folks just can’t stand to see even a sliver of open land without a building or a parking lot on it. The loss of precious local open space doesn’t bother him. He can just jump on an airplane and fly off to the wide-open spaces of Montana or Alaska to catch fish or kill critters any old time he wants. In the meantime, those less affluent folks here in our town are given the proverbial finger. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve warned you about these guys. If your rights have not yet been trampled by them, it’s only a matter of time . . . .

West barely had time to place two fingers of his right hand over the underside of his left wrist whilst simultaneously taking a deep centering breath, administering an antihypertensive and ridding his diet of sodium when, on November 9, he received a call from a city official (“Ernesto Munoz, Interim Public Services Director for the City of Costa Mesa”) who “assured me that there is NOT a plan to pave over any portion of Fairview Park, especially segments where protected vernal pools are located. He told me unequivocally that no such item is on the agenda for the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting next Wednesday, November 16th.”

So, the whole rationale for believing that Mensinger was behind this nuclear attack on a public park–the stuff about developers who are almost agoraphobic in their terror in the landmarkless and howling void that is Fairview Park, and the putative jet-setting and animal-killing lifestyle of the rich and dangerous–was, in reality what West thinks West thinks—or what West would like us to think West thinks, that there’s actual thinking/logic/reason behind his posts w/r/t Mensinger.

It’s more likely, of course, that the authentic source—the root or genesis—of West’s credulous faith in anti-Mensinger rumors is located elsewhere: in the fact that West is the public-employee union’s leading unpaid spokesperson, and that Mensinger favors pension reform.

THERE’S NO LAW AGAINST being wrong most of the time; Criswell ultimately landed a gig on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. But there’s something odd about West, a man who takes the time to attend countless Costa Mesa city meetings, and then studiously ignores what happens to them, reporting instead on his internal gyroscopic sense of the event.

West showed his inner Criswell from the very beginning. A Republic of Costa Mesa reader sent us a selection of West’s archived entries, from 2005, including his July 9 prediction that “[a]mbitious Mayor Pro Tem Gary Monahan, who theoretically is termed out of a council seat after his current tour, might be looking forward to higher office—perhaps county supervisor. I imagine he will have his ear cocked for the sound of jingling coins, too.” West knows better than we do that Monahan is still perched on the dias, though now appears (well) beneath the legend IN GOD WE TRUST.

That same year, just a week later, West predicted, “With a recent Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain as backup, the council can now begin to purge the Westside of those businesses they find so offensive and proceed to sell off the property to salivating developers—who, coincidentally, might just become major campaign contributors.” Much has disappeared since 2005 (Detroit), but not the destruction of our beloved Westside businesses.

We could go on, but you get the picture. Now, years later, West’s legacy of faulty facts and failed predictions continues. On October 31, 2010, he predicted that Jim Righeimer would attempt to take the city into bankruptcy in order to save it: “For months he has told public employee groups that he was going after their wage and benefit packages. The ONLY way to do that is through bankruptcy.” In fact, the city council just passed its first balanced budget in years.

Failing for years at predictions, West has turned to baseless accusations of criminal acts. On October 25, 2011, he wrote, “we have so many contractors now working at City Hall in so many departments and wearing so many different hats and so many members of the regular senior staff that would ordinarily be overseeing their activities have departed, that it seems like the kind of malfeasance referenced in Anaheim could easily occur in our city.” If you work for the city and have conducted yourself honorably all these years, it must be nice to know that you’re a still a suspect in a crime that hasn’t been committed.

On October 9, in a move that was bold even for Geoff West, he accused three councilmembers of a “whiff of corruption.” West’s smoking gun in this case was not an intercepted memo, a forwarded e-mail or a whispered lead, but merely his observation at a city council meeting that three of Leece’s colleagues refused to answer her request for disclosure of all ex parte communications. The image West chose to accompany this alleged crime shows money changing hands. But that’s how it is on A Bubbling Cauldron: Your words incriminate you, and so does your silence.

In his most grotesque accusation, West accused Councilman Steve Mensinger of leading to bankruptcy an Orange County firm in which Mensinger was not involved. West not only refuses to apologize to Mensinger for the smear, he won’t even acknowledge it’s a smear.

For Geoff “Criswell” West, a blogger who wants readers to believe his righteousness, years of irresponsible blogging have become his brand, his watermark, his whacked-out coat of arms. That commitment to stating with precision the opposite of what’s true?  It requires energy and a kind of intellectual blindness. And that’s not something you can outsource.

____________

* I received huge amounts of help on this piece from a Republic of Costa Mesa reader who wishes to remain anonymous. It was his/her recollection of the Amazing Criswell in particular that set me to wondering about our undeniable affection for entertainers whose entire ouvre is built on getting it wrong–like Criswell. But in Criswell’s case, we were in on the gag; there was a sense that even Criswell didn’t believe Criswell, that what Criswell really was was a parody of Criswell. He was self-parodic. But fans of West–or, say, of Jennifer Muir or Fox News–aren’t looking for comic relief. They want confirmation of their prejudices. They are like tombstones for the Founding Fathers’ marketplace of ideas. We humans aren’t always, it turns out, rational calculators sifting evidence to find truth. We are conclusions in search of evidence.

Armagideon Time: City staff dismantle union leadership’s pension claims

Buried in Geoff West’s recap of last night’s Costa Mesa council meeting was real news—not news of what West believes is evidence of the council majority’s psychiatric disorders but of the city staff’s absolute evisceration of the union’s audit of city finances.

West reports the event in just 36 words, like throwing a handful of earth atop a casket:

The council concurred with Finance and Information Technology Director Bobby Young’s assessment and response to the Harvey M. Rose Associates financial review. The City rejected every suggestion and voted to receive and file the report, 5-0.

“Concurred”? “Assessment and response”? “Receive and file”? This is the language of a tea party or a procedures manual for the data entry staff in an insurance company. Young’s assessment was like Jesus’s return in the Book of Revelation. There were bowls of blood. Avenging angels. Goat-men. A thing with, like, seven heads and 10 horns.

Geeks following the Costa Mesa pension war will recall that the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), the union representing city workers, hired an outside auditor to look over Costa Mesa’s finances. The OCEA had hoped the auditor would land a lethal blow. Instead, granted full access to Costa Mesa’s books, auditor Steve Foti of Harvey M. Rose concluded—just in time for the council’s 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.

Foti’s report was the mild expression of an honest philosophical disagreement over what constitutes a reasonable reserve—or savings account—for a city government in the midst of a recession. But the OCEA immediately seized on their auditor’s meager finding as evidence of the council’s perfidy. Union spokesperson and former Register reporter Jennifer Muir said Foti’s report proved the city council had “hidden pots of money” in order to generate a fake financial crisis and, so, pursue its real goal: the enslavement of working Americans. When Foti politely denied his client’s claim, Muir, hyperventilating, corrected herself: the “hidden pots of money” were, she said, “hidden in plain sight.”

In any case, the union (and Foti) argued that the reserve cash should be tapped in order to fund pay and benefits packages that (polls suggest) most of us believe are excessive.

We don’t need to wonder about the outcome of funding operational expenses out of reserves: The answer is in the smoking hole that used to be the city of Santa Ana. There, the city council, supported by the city’s union leaders, failed to cut its budget, instead dipping into reserves to make one-time payments on rising pension and pay obligations. The result: Santa Ana is now near bankruptcy.

On Tuesday night, Young delivered a eulogy for the union’s audit. You can read his staff’s entire analysis here. But its conclusion is pretty simple: “Staff believes the 10 items—which Rose states will free up $26.4 million for spending—will weaken the City’s cash position and may dictate a cash crisis in the future.”

Reading Geoff West, you’d never get that. He was otherwise engaged.

YOU HAVE TO ADMIRE WEST’S stamina. He’s just indefatigable—sat through last night’s city council meeting as if its outcome would have any bearing on his recap this morning. Reading “De Facto Hiring Freeze Imposed By Council, And More,” is interesting in the way that Mad Libs can be—except that here West’s choice of adjectives and adverbs is limited to words he can find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

He’s so upset (West is) that he can’t keep his friends close and his enemies closer because he can’t tell them apart. First, he blows up the council majority for proposing a hiring freeze that would require CEO Tom Hatch to seek council approval for all new hires. In that “not-unexpected attempt to micromanage the process,” the council “snatched [hiring] authority right out of his [Hatch’s] hands.” But then, forgetting himself and just radioactively melting down, his spoon poised maybe over an early Wednesday morning bowl of Honey Bunches of Madness, West switches to nukes and goes after Hatch himself: “while every other part of the organization has been asked to slice staff and most have the specter of outsourcing hanging over their heads, it seems like Hatch has been staffing his organization to the hilt.”

It’s hard to be West’s friend. Consider unlucky Councilmember Wendy Leece, the union’s lone vote on the council and therefore West’s spandex-clad superhero. Trying to explain one of her odd votes, West concludes that Righeimer deployed sorcery or “some slick maneuvering” and “conned” his fellow councilmember. Leece emerges not as Righeimer’s victim but a dope.

West clearly hates Councilman Eric Bever, who is “bizarre,” “truly strange” and “a dunce.” The council majority is impolite—“chose to blow off the three dozen applicants for spots on the committees without so much as a ‘thank you’ for applying.” Oh, and the council is also “stupid” and “incompetent,” but this is “not surprising” to West. The council majority’s members “want to destroy” the city’s unions, “don’t really care about how service levels may suffer in doing so.” In one bitchy sentence, West moves from theology to interior design and then transportation, searching for the words that will distill his hatred for a city council he simply doesn’t understand: “They preach ‘transparency’ and produce the window dressing to support their claims, but where the rubber meets the road—in their official actions—they deal in subterfuge and deceit.”

Not just subterfuge but deceit, too. He might also have considered contrivance, gambit, machination, ploy, racket and ruse.

There’s got to be something inside the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to describe darkly the motives of people you simply don’t understand.

Cheese! Union bosses say no thanks to compromise in Costa Mesa

Until you’ve had a lavalier clipped to your lapel and stared down the barrel of a TV camera—the one with the terrifying red light over it—it’s hard to really judge televisual performance, to understand how weird it is to look into that unblinking iris as if it were an actual human bulbus oculi connected to a sentient being, or just to live beneath unnatural light and cosmetics as if they weren’t really there at all. It turns out that looking natural requires unnatural skill.

But even our pre-TV forebears would have been struck by the scenery-chewing appearance of union boss Nick Berardino on the September 29 edition of Rick Reiff’s Inside OC

Berardino was a guest on the KOCE public affairs program alongside Jim Righeimer; JR’s the Costa Mesa councilman whom the union’s media allies depict as a highly bred right-wing Republican politician (Internet search the words “bubbling cauldron geoff west jim righeimer carpetbagging”). In fact, it’s Berardino who’s the 200-proof politician, the guy who can play all sides of an issue, a man from whom all earnestness has been squeezed to make more room for fake. In an earlier—some would say better—age, we might have said Berardino contains multitudes; today, we just say he can’t keep his story straight, that he’s all tactics and no strategy. He’s generally media-savvy, articulate and avuncular, like the Pillsbury Doughboy stuffed into a suit that seems designed not so much to tame his workingman’s appearance as to underscore it.

When the New Yorker’s Tad Friend called Berardino’s cookie-duster “a placatory mustache,” he too was referring to the ironies inherent in the man. He (Nick) represents workingmen and women while pulling down an executive’s salary2 from behind an executive’s desk, with an executive’s rank: yes, yes, he’s the titular “General Manager” of the Orange County Employees Association, a rank that suggests chewing tobacco, hitting, fielding and televised testicle-adjustments. But he operates as a CEO.

As a CEO, he’s led the union for years now, and because of that we expect Nick to have a command of facts and of himself. So we were surprised when, on Inside OC, he had neither. He was like an anxious kitchen appliance, a steaming little teapot, maybe, or the monstrous offspring of a Jewish grandmother and the Atom-Action Bingo Ball Blower from Kardwell International. Outshouted by Berardino, Reiff quickly lost his grip on the show. “I threw out my talking points after 30 seconds,” Righeimer later told RCM; about 90 seconds into the show, Righeimer, pie-eyed, was like a man who’d fallen off a wedding cake into a snow globe. He seemed to have become a bemused part of the TV audience: a little later, overwhelmed perhaps by Berardino-induced oxygen deprivation, Righeimer turned to Reiff and said, “This is the Nick Show.”

Nick rubbed his nose obsessively, bounced in his seat, and mumbled to himself distractedly. He raced through a list of written non-sequitirs—and then dropped them on the dais and jabbed at them with both hands as if he were Heinrich Schlieman indicating something he’d just pulled from the ruins of ancient Troy. He expertly deployed the what-do-I-know shoulder shrug in conjunction with the palms turned heavenward display of exasperation. His eyes blinked1 like a silent screen star’s, suggesting bright lights, sandstorm, shock, fear or falsehood. In one breathless/circular/puzzling rhetorical sprint he used the hippie-era adjective “flaky” four times. He was flaky—that’s the word for it—high-pitched, whiney and feminine, generating the clear sense that he’s a guy with photographs of your dog crapping on his lawn.

The huge surprise here was not that Berardino would fail to tell the truth while on camera—more on which in a moment—but that he would perform so badly while doing so.

CITIES ACROSS AMERICA, even Santa Ana next door, are struggling financially, trying to escape the pincers of a collapsing economy and rising pension obligations associated with public employees. Rather than address that dark reality, Berardino retreated to political hypnosis—hoping that those of us who still shudder at the names Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush and Righeimer will grant Berardino a free pass where logic is concerned.

Nick dismissed as mere “ideology” Righeiemer’s claim that rising pension obligations are wrecking cities across the country. So untethered from reality is Berardino that he actually said, “It’s not true that cities are in trouble.” Righeimer’s concern with a balanced budget “has to do with ideology as opposed to the law,” he said, “and when you’re doing something unlawful you can’t just go on and break the law and think you’re going to get away with it because you want to get votes, and so that’s what happened, it’s what happened, it’s what happened and so, you know, I have to just interrupt him now because he interrupted me.”

He was like that throughout, Berardino was, bizarre but mesmerizing, and so we nearly missed the moment when he revealed the sort of complexity—the sociopathic truthlessness—for which Nick Berardino’s OCEA has now rightly become legendary.

BUT FIRST SOME BACKGROUND: the Orange County Employees Association wants to achieve two goals simultaneously: to boost (or at least not surrender) the pay and benefits of its members, including those who work for the City of Costa Mesa. At the same time, the OCEA can’t appear completely ignorant of the economic reality in which many American cities, including Costa Mesa, now find themselves. The union leadership must, in short, cling to unsustainable P&Bs while appearing not to be clinging at all. It must maintain a kind of rigid flexibility. And so the union leadership refuses to compromise . . . while accusing the city’s elected leaders of refusing to compromise.

The fact, of course, is that the city has offered to compromise—to talk/negotiate/palaver—repeatedly. But not the union. “They have never agreed to negotiate,” Righeimer told RCM. “They just continue to say it to make us look unreasonable. We have asked in public for [Costa Mesa] CEO [Tom] Hatch to ask [the union leadership] to open negotiation, and they refuse.”

So here was Berardino again, this time with a mike strapped to his lapel and three cameras kind of looking at him, telling host Rick Reiff,  “Another thing that’s important is that we all come to the table and talk. So far the city has refused to do that.”

Righeimer flashed, eyeballed the watch on his wrist, and said emphatically, “We will sit down and meet with you and talk. We can meet right after this—this afternoon—and talk.”

And then Berardino turned prophetic, and said, “No, you won’t.”

Mission accomplished, Nick!

THAT SAME DAY, MAYBE EVEN AT the same time, Costa Mesa CEO Hatch sent a letter to the Costa Mesa Employees Association, the OCEA sister organization directly representing city workers. In that letter, Hatch asked the CMEA’s leaders to come on over to City Hall to talk about the budget deficit.

The union’s refusal came the very next day, in a letter that took the long route to no, several paragraphs in which CMEA president Helen Nenadal established that the union’s leaders have “a long and consistent history” of displaying a “spirit of collaboration” illustrative of their “care and concern” in defending a “loyal and experienced workforce.” And of course union leaders “remain willing and able” “to engage” “at some point” in “informal discussions,” & etc.

That sort of stuff goes on and on in Nenadal’s letter—the rhetorical equivalent of eye blinking, shoulder shrugging and palms turned upward because what are you gonna do? And you can just feel the “no” coming slowly toward you like some lame inevitability, some stupid punchline to a knock-knock joke, all this foreplay and no real sex, just this: “We remain ready to engage. We remain ready to help. But we will not do so unilaterally or irresponsibly.” Not even “no,” in other words, but just more noise from the union’s leaders, more meaningless syllables, more anxious bouncing in seats beneath hot lights, more nose rubbing, more mumbling amongst themselves while the whole city watches.

_____________________

1. Eye blinking related to “dry eyes, tardive dyskinesia, Tourette syndrome, schizophrenia, autism, and combined depression and sleep deprivation” and other neuropsychiatric disorders. Ebert D, Albert R, Hammon G, Strasser B, May A, Merz A. Eye-blink rates and depression. Is the antidepressant effect of sleep deprivation mediated by the dopamine system?  Neuropsychopharmacology. 1996; 15: 332-339.

2. Roughly $200k per year.

Total Recall: How to apologize for screwing up a cover story about the CM pension fight

PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
The Preface to the First Edition apparently failed to make clear that I wrote the Editor’s Note, below. Thinking that the EN was an authentic OC Weekly apology, commenters celebrated OC Weekly‘s candor and swift, corrective action.

“I do want to congratulate you on admitting you screwed up big time, and putting it out there for all to see,” wrote one of our readers. “Plus pulling the piece was the only logical thing to do.” “OCW is doing the right thing,” wrote another. “They said they are sorry and took steps to correct the problem.”

Except, see, they haven’t done the right thing–haven’t said they’re sorry, haven’t pulled the piece or made an announcement to rectify anything. You can see, now, maybe, the necessity of this PSE, this clarification of my own clarification.

So let me make this as transparent as possible: I wrote the EN below.

Having said this, sure, I offered the EN to the Weekly (free), and would celebrate (quietly) its appearance there–less for reasons of ego (though, sure) than for what it would mean about the paper w/r/t doing things right, & etc.

We (by which we mean “I”) are (“am”) profoundly sorry for the lack of clarity. Just to be safe, we (“I”) have added the word “FAKE” as an antecedent to the words “EDITOR’S NOTE.”

PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION
On Thursday, September 8, OC Weekly ran two corrections (a reporter’s response and an editor’s note) on a single article–not one but two corrections, that is, covering not one but multiple errors in the paper’s September 1 cover story.

Unprecedented in their breadth, the corrections were, even at 295 words, anemic/unproductive/incomplete.

I edited the Weekly from 1995 to 2006, and have some experience in writing corrections. But I never had the chance to rectify something like this–something erroneous on a Book of World Records level. So, I offer the Weekly’s editors the following Editor’s Note for publication:

FAKE EDITOR’S NOTE
Those of you who read our two Sept. 8 corrections re 13-plus errors in Chasen Marshall’s cover story “It’s Gotten Costa Messy” (Sept. 1) might reasonably conclude we’ve lost our damn minds. We’d like to say, “We’re human and, because we’re human we make mistakes,” but 13 errors in a single story? Errors on that scale are inhuman—monumental, grotesque, stupid, dangerous. They suggest institutional laziness or bias or both.

We’re going to go with laziness, because we’d hate to have you think we’re just making stuff up. Bias hasn’t been a problem for us before. We’ve got a reputation for bringing down high-ranking officials, whether Republican or Democrat. Remember former HB Mayor Dave Garofalo? He’s “former” because of us. Bitter, defeated ex-Congressman Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan?  Sheriff Mike Carona? That was us, too. They were all Republicans. But we’ve never hesitated to go after Democrats—and if you don’t believe us, ask Irvine’s Larry Agran or Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez what’s it like when R. Scott Moxley turns his steely gaze upon you. Where good stories are concerned, we’re pretty much omnivorous.

Lately, though, w/r/t Costa Mesa, we’ve become metronomically predictable.

Like most progressives, we’re just huge fans of unions; unlike most progressives, we have this simultaneous mission-related requirement that we tell the truth about them. In Costa Mesa—where the public employees union is at war with city officials over pay and benefits—we’ve abandoned truth-telling. We’ve repeated claims gleaned from union press releases without checking them. When told point-blank we’d made a mistake, we reacted with the kind of smugness common among people who buy ink by the barrel.

Then came “It’s Gotten Costa Messy,” a headline that turns out to be more revealing than we’d like to admit. But admit it we must.

Last week’s corrections listed “several errors,” and we felt like Firestone officials ca.  2000-01 cataloging them—our confusion over draft/final budgets, blogger Geoff West’s age, the name of the union representing city employees, the assertion that the city’s layoff notices “expire,” the percentage of employees facing layoff, what a writ of mandate is/does. We’re still confused (and so have probably confused our readers) about how CalPERS figures pension expenses. We included a union member’s allegation that Coucilmember Steve Mensinger assaulted him, implying that the allegation had real merit; we didn’t mention that witnesses denied it or that the DA refused to file charges. Borrowing from a union broadside without fact-checking it, we suggested the city council was spending millions of dollars on City Hall renovations when, in fact, those renovations aren’t in the budget at all: ironically, they’ve been sacrificed to the payment of rising pension obligations.

This mea culpa requires that we exhume one series of errors to show just how exceptionally bad our reporting was: In one sentence, Marshall quoted a “Perry Valentine” declaring “the coming demise of the city of Costa Mesa as we’ve come to know and love it.” Marshall identified this “Valentine” as having recently retired after a long stint on the planning commission. First, we now know, it turns out his name is VALANTINE. Second and third, Valantine’s recent retirement took place more than six years ago—which is recent only in something like geology. And Valantine retired not from the planning commission but from his position as principal planner for Costa Mesa’s Development Services Department—he was not, in other words, an appointed official but a city employee. Three errors of fact in a single sentence isn’t even the most glaring problem here. Citing Valantine without revealing that he receives a pension as a result of his union membership—and is therefore hardly what you’d call a neutral observer—is an oversight that some might call reckless.

We should have apologized (but didn’t) for Marshall’s retrospectively ridiculous assertion that the entire outsourcing effort stems from the council’s desire to close a $1.4 million budget gap. We now realize that that gap was for the 2010-11 fiscal year, and that outsourcing initiatives launched in 2011 wouldn’t save the city anything until well into the 2011-12 fiscal year. Also, it doesn’t really make sense for the council to upend the city over what amounts to about 1.4 percent of the city’s budget. We now understand that the city’s $221 million unfunded pension liability and the fact that 80 percent of all city revenue goes into employee pay and benefits are probably more proximate concerns. And we should have mentioned in the same context (but didn’t) that Marshall, our editors and factcheckers aren’t really clear on the difference between a calendar and a fiscal year. Where finances are concerned, that’s a crucial distinction.

We compounded these mistakes with an author’s response and a “correction” that were each so irresponsible as to suggest that our errors weren’t really errors, but “clarifications” and “adjustments.” Doing so implied that we were dealing with issues on which intelligent minds could disagree, when in fact we were plain wrong. That too was stupid.

“Regret” doesn’t begin to describe precisely how lame we feel.

It’s also embarrassing that our correction itself was incorrect in saying that Costa Mesa blogger Geoff West is a former city worker, though if you’ve read his lopsided perspective on the union you can understand why we’d think that. Seriously, if union boss Nick Berardino ran West’s “A Bubbling Cauldron,” if Pete Seeger couldn’t sing and had access to a blog in Costa Mesa, they’d write what West has. But we ought to have checked it out.

Reading all this, you can probably imagine our red-cheeked humiliation when we found some readers actually applauding the story before we could announce its total recall. In his blog, West practically canonized Marshall, calling his piece “an excellent follow-on to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece.” Hours later, of course, we made the first of many corrections. We could hide behind the fact that maybe West should have checked our facts before declaring Marshall ready for a job in NYC, but that would be (again) shedding responsibility, and so we apologize to West for practically digging a hole, covering it with leaves and then encouraging him to walk over it. We understand that he’ll likely never trust us again. But the fact is, watching his credulity as he bear-hugged our preposterous story, he’ll understand that the feeling is mutual.

As editors we can tell you that there were moments when we worried federal regulators might require one of those illustrated warning labels on our product, one maybe with a picture of a rotten brain.

It’s obvious we forgot the old newsroom adage, “When your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” We could claim we never had mothers, or had mothers who didn’t love us, and so just nodded whenever more experienced reporters referenced it, but that too would be irresponsible.

And as long as we’re being unusually candid, when we say “we,” we’re hiding behind the fact that we actually mean the small number of us responsible for looking over Marshall’s shoulder. We apologize to the rest of the staff—solid reporters, all of them—and beg you not to assume their guilt through association with us.

We’re just sick, is what we’re trying to say.

For all these reasons, including our own nausea and PTSD where “It’s Gotten Costa Messy” is concerned, we’re taking the unprecedented step of removing the offending article from the website. But it won’t disappear down the memory hole: we’re entering it in the Darwin Awards—and when we win First Place, we’ll run a cover story accusing ourselves of rigging the vote.

We kid: that’s an apology for another day.

It takes a cookie: A therapeutic view of the Costa Mesa pension crisis

AS I WRITE THIS, A STORY ABOUT Costa Mesa’s pension battle is the second-most popular feature on the San Francisco Chronicle website, right after a piece about pot-growing murderers on California’s North Coast, and a few spots above an item about Green Day’s lead singer getting tossed off a plane for sagging.1

As with this week’s earlier New Yorker profile, the Chron ’s September 3 “Battle over public employees rocks Orange County” depicts Costa Mesa as a “sun-drenched mecca,” “a region known for its sparkling beaches, glitzy shopping malls and renegade ‘real housewives’” that has become “ground zero” in a battle between ideologically driven Republicans and organized labor.

It’s a story we’ve seen before, and we’ll doubtless see again and again as it goes into national syndication for a media driven nuts to find simple paint-by-numbers conflicts between “left” and “right” because any other conflict—any real ground zero—includes more nuance than is good for us.

In the Chron story, Huy Pham appears again as the youthful city worker who, badgered by anti-union critics and haunted by the threat of imminent job loss, climbed to the roof of City Hall and then jumped to his death on St. Patrick’s Day. There’s Pham’s colleague, Billy Folsom, the city employee whose previous credits include a cameo in the New Yorker piece, a role he reprises here as the betrayed, loyal worker. It’s Folsom who tells the Chron he’s worked 30 years for Costa Mesa and “his thanks [for that service] came in the form of a pink slip.” And—hey!—here are councilmembers Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger in a five-legged race with GOP chief Scott Baugh and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.2

The place of honor is for Sandi Genis. She gives Chron reporter Carla Marinucci her article’s super-sweet thesis: that Costa Mesa’s problem is not one of math–of revenue that exceeds operating expenses–but of communication and cookies.

Genis’s appearance in “Battle” is worth quoting at length:

[L]ongtime resident Sandy Genis, a Republican and former Costa Mesa mayor, said that while trimming costs and reforming pensions is necessary, the effort has been mishandled and overly politicized. “A lot of this isn’t about economics; it’s about power,” said Genis, who was mayor from 1992 to 1994 and a member of the city council for several years. “I don’t want my city to be the political petri dish. It’s wrenching for the city and it’s very expensive.”

Genis concedes that city costs must be trimmed, but said such discussions were done in collaboration with employee groups in less-partisan times. As the legal battle drags on, city employees’ morale is terrible, she said. “The collegiality is gone.”

She baked hundreds of fruit cookies recently and took them to City Hall for the workers.

“People were like, ‘I might be able to maintain my sanity because now someone appreciates me,’” she said. “That just breaks my heart because we have a good city, with good services and good employees.”

All it took was a cookie.

LIKE MOST FILM/TELEVISION DRAMAS, the Costa Mesa conflict (as Genis recounts it) isn’t insuperable or even gym-class challenging, but more like any one of the 96 episodes of My Name is Earl in which the protagonist can overcome the resistance of those around him to intimacy/vulnerability/healing. He does this–in just 21 minutes per episode–through his own noble intention to restore karmic balance to the universe.

Similarly, though the pension crisis is real, Genis says, really heavy lifting—actually eliminating the system that generates rising expense obligations in the form of city payments to employee pensions, and doing that (the eliminating, I mean) despite union leaders who will say almost anything in order to frustrate that effort—is unnecessary. The transcendent problem, it turns out, is a therapeutic one, Genis suggests. And that problem–a problem of communication–is easily handled: All it takes is the baking and distribution of hundreds of fruit cookies along with Hallmarkian Words of Appreciation.

But maybe that’s an unfair characterization, so let me say this another way: after all the sturm und drang, what’s wrong with Costa Mesa’s council majority is simply its bad manners. The council majority ought to have offered its pension-reduction proposal as the meaty part of a compliment sandwich: “We really appreciate the good work you do,” the council might have told city workers, “and we need to make some changes to your pay in order to save the city, and we expect that the ointment of our love/affection/idol worship will mitigate the sting of that decrease, or rather ‘correction,’ and please just look us in the eyes (we notice yours are just bedazzling, btw—hazel?) as we tell you how much we care about you.” Instead, Genis says, the council majority–animated by a kind of simian will to “power”–“overly politicized” what’s otherwise perfectly and simply true—“economics,” on which everyone can agree.

Listening to this, it’s easy to imagine the city before Righeimer as Genis must: stretching back to maybe Eisenhower (the narrative goes), Costa Mesa BR was like a South Seas island of primitive but honest civility, populated by near-naked people who’d have sex with you in exchange for nails you pulled from HMS Dolphin. Now? Such respect and ease have evaporated. In their places: Disease. Famine. Sword. Fire. And Righeimer like Jack Merridew in Lord of the Flies—Righeimer decorticating human skull for a breakfast of yummy, yummy brain.

Genis didn’t auto-generate the Cookie Narrative. It arose more or less simultaneously with the union’s other narrative, that there is no financial crisis at all but the one fabricated by Tea Party activists in the OC Republican Party. But as the facts make it difficult to claim that the crisis is manufactured, the therapeutic narrative has gained ascendancy. They sometimes appear like monstrous conjoined twins: Note that union boss Nick Berardino hired an auditor to prove there isn’t a crisis, and simultaneously concedes that of course there’s a crisis here, but that he won’t even discuss a deal to resolve it so long as there’s a “gun to our heads.”3 In April, the Register ’s Barbara Venezia penned “Men Behaving Badly,” an entire column devoted to the idea that it takes a cookie.4

A few days ago, it (the Cookie Narrative) popped up in the New Yorker, where reporter Tad Friend suggested that Costa Mesans lived in a state of normal/suburban/bourgeois/quotidian kindness until Huy Pham’s March 17 leap; there’s something almost mythic in Friend’s belief that as Pham came to earth, ancient enmities of labor v. management bloomed.

Like all myths, it makes for compelling storytelling but shouldn’t be mistaken for actual history. It doesn’t take much memory or research to recall that, months before Pham’s suicide, blogger Geoff West, his bullhorn already cranked up to a tympanic-membrane-rending 11, was warning us that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse + Jim Righeimer were headed into town on steeds made of horsebone and flame. In a November 2010 post, to take but one instance, West celebrates Councilmember Wendy Leece for “voting her conscience instead of being bullied into following the party line”—a reference to Leece’s slavish desire for the GOP’s endorsement while subsequently/eagerly acting against the GOP’s positions by voting for increases in the city’s pension program, and, sure, we guess that takes testicles of some estimable size. West’s already—months before Huy Pham’s death, is my point—referring to the bad manners of the Other Side. And West wasn’t singular in having that Charles Manson look in his eye, as anyone who observed last fall’s Costa Mesa Police Association’s Daze of Rage campaign will tell you.5

THE COOKIE NARRATIVE ASSUMES THAT THE CITY COUNCIL majority started this fight, that it’s the CCM’s “bad manners/behavior” that catalysed the ancient enmities. I’d assert that’s untrue. But most couples know that locating the genesis of an argument is like firing pistols at one another inside an airplane midair. It leads to the sort of one-downsmanship that rapidly has all parties losing rhetorical altitude and, so, while both are gasping for and sucking at dangling oxygen masks, they quickly lose track of the visual interrogative landmark.6

Whoever started it, the claims and counter-claims of bad manners continue down to this day, with the union leadership’s most ardent supporters simply ignoring inconvenient truths. Geoff West, for example, republishes anything in Tad Friend’s New Yorker article that makes Steve Mensinger look positively troglodytic7, but he neatly elides (West does) Friend’s description of Berardino as “a hot-tempered man with a placatory gray mustache . . . mulling over how to turn the day’s pink slips into an effective P.R. campaign when he heard the news” of Pham’s death, or of Berardino’s response to that death:

After driving to City Hall, Berardino charged at Hatch, yelling, “This is what happens when you send out massive layoff notices in this economy. You’re f****** responsible, because you’re the f****** leader.” Berardino had to be restrained by two cops . . . . Unnerved by the suicide and by the encounter with Berardino, Hatch later wept in his fifth-floor office.

We could go on in this vein, illustrating the ways in which Costa Mesa politics is probably a lot like dinner at the OC Jail—a lot of elbows on the table, a glaring lack of concern for the niceties of mastication, and an apparent failure to appreciate spatial divisions among such functions as personal-grooming and dining, for example.

But it really doesn’t matter. Because the union leadership’s focus–and Genis, West, the New Yorker, and the Chronicle ‘s dilation–on manners is a dead end: to see this pension crisis as irresolvable until the council majority learns to distinguish among salad and dinner forks keeps us from handling the actual problem.

THERE’S NO POLITE WAY TO SAY what must be said in response to this false dilemma, so please find yourself a cookie and hold it tightly while I tell you the following in (what I beg you to imagine is) my most saccharine/appreciative/compassionate voice:

First, the pension crisis is real; each year, the city digs deeper into reserves to pay for its rising pension and salary obligations. Even the council’s harshest critics occasionally acknowledge this fact.

Second, this crisis was produced by a range of actors: by union boss Nick Berardino who, in pursuing what he apparently thought was his Prime Directive (i.e., ever-rising salary and pay for his members), neglected to consider the long-term impact on the city and, so, has put his members in a bad spot—achieved for them ever-escalating Stair Climber™ by Bowflex™ incomes and benies that defy all known economic laws; by Nick’s PR team at the Orange County Employees Association, which continues to say almost anything in order to support Berardino’s PD; by reporters and bloggers who (a) slavishly reproduce the fictions of that PR team without checking them out, and/or (b) conveyor-belt into the public square for consumption stuff they actually know is unadulterated crap8, and/or (c) actively cheerlead the OCEA’s campaign; successive city councils up to November of last year who accepted union campaign cash in exchange for votes to approve rising pay and benefits; and, yes, the estimable Allan Roeder, Costa Mesa’s former city manager, who presided over those councils but was either unable, unwilling or disinclined to stop them.

Finally, to reverse all that won’t be easy, and it’s probably best to accept that it won’t always be nice, recalling Mao Zedong’s observation that a revolution is not a dinner party. Politics, it emerges, isn’t pretty.

___________________________________

1. (including maybe one of the great intros of the day: “Southwest Airlines to Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong: You dress like an American idiot.”)
2. Walker’s become a synecdoche for the entire class of anti-labor struggles dating back to the Haymarket Massacre, probably, and his mention in the Chron article reveals the author’s desire to stuff 10 pounds of Costa Mesa into the five-pound bag of a news story in which all color is reduced to the red-state/blue-state of your typical political reportage. Handling nuance is, for your average political reporter, like barehanding a porcupine.
3. Guns, of course, are bad manners almost anywhere outside of Lord of War.
4. Venezia at least identified the semantic brutality of Costa Mesa politics as a nonpartisan phenomenon. But you’ve just got to ask how she sees this as gender-related when female union execs—PR spokesperson Jennifer Muir and Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Association—reveal (in her story) that they share the mercenary instincts of the men around them.
5.Venezia remembers, in Ibid: “Does anyone remember the guerilla marketing campaign the Costa Mesa Police Association launched against Jim Righeimer last election? It backfired big time and probably helped Jim get elected to council. Guess the OCEA missed that one.”
6. As for example the purely hypothetical question of who embarrassed whom by having seven shots of Patron while someone else was making a Very Important Speech on the role of community newspapers?
7. Which I think Mensinger himself would admit is barrel-fishing with an AR-15 assault rifle. I’ve watched him twice up close, and he hardly seems like a guy who worries overmuch about your feelings about him.
8. E.g., West who blows smoke for the union leadership even while offering this third-party critique of my critique of OCEA PR: “I don’t disagree with most of his [i.e., my] assessment of [OCEA flak] Jennifer Muir’s work for the OCEA. I think their [i.e., the union’s] tactics are backfiring on them.”

Malice in Pension Wonderland (‘Who’s bankrupt?’ Part II)

Regular readers may recall my July 28 open letter to Costa Mesa blogger Geoff West, “Who’s bankrupt?” In that post, I examined Geoff’s revelation that a lawyer representing Councilmember Steve Mensinger had sent Geoff a retraction demand—the first step in a libel action. The demand was a response to Geoff’s June 11 “Bubbling Cauldron” post, in which Geoff claimed that Mensinger and his council colleague Jim Righeimer will destroy the city of Costa Mesa, and will achieve this dark end by employing the “skills that they used to ride two divisions of SunCal Companies into the ground.” Pointing out that Mensinger drove precisely zero SunCal divisions into the ground or anywhere else, the lawyer demanded West retract the claim.

I argued that West’s story met the three criteria for a libel suit—it was defamatory, untrue and published.

Yesterday, Dan Chmielewski of Liberal OC added a fourth requirement. “Actually, since we’re dealing with public officials here, you need to be able to prove actual malice to sue for libel—that West knowingly published information he knew was false,” Dan wrote. “Since West doesn’t believe the information was false based on his research, the city council members are going to have a difficult time proving actual malice.”

Dan is right to say that, where public officials are concerned, judges sometimes require evidence of malice (New York Times v. Sullivan). While “malice” may mean pre-publication knowledge that information is false (as Dan says), it may also mean a reckless disregard for truth (which Dan doesn’t say). And w/r/t Mensinger, Geoff’s site is a catalogue of reckless. For any journalist or editor who has worked closely with libel attorneys, reading “A Bubbling Cauldron” is like walking through the Torture Museum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber which, even without the abundant German-English translations, is just lower-GI-convulsing and fantods-inducing.

Seriously: go in there (West’s blog, not the museum, though that, too) and take a look at the months-long context surrounding the incident in which Geoff misfires on SunCal. If this were an isolated event regarding a public official in, say, the U.S. Senate? Maybe no evidence of malice. But Mensinger’s also (and mostly) still a private citizen with a salary to earn, and the false accusation—which Geoff published not once but twice, and then after a written request for retraction—that he piloted a company into a hillside is damaging to the work Mensinger needs in order to handle his part-time obligations on the council.

But please hold onto my broader point here, which Dan seems (maybe) to have lost (which, if so, my fault). I’m not arguing that Mensinger should sue Geoff; he should not. I’m a First Amendment absolutist the way Geoff’s friends on the right are just monomaniacal about the Second vis-à-vis gun rights, so I don’t think anyone—esp. a public official—should sue. My point is that Geoff West occasionally just pops off (breathlessly) without evidence to back up his claims. And he has a predictable way of doing so: Notice the breezy way he segues from not knowing something (e.g., whether Mensinger chest-bumped Estancia High School teacher Joel Flores at a public event) to establishing a context for believing that he believes/knows/assumes the truth of the rumor/hearsay (“I’ve never thought of [Mensinger] as a particularly slow learner—a bully—yes, but a slow learner—no.”) Police eventually refused to file charges against Mensinger in that case–a fact which Geoff manages to turn into a kind of guilty verdict for Mensinger:

Let’s hope this incident will now be put behind us and that Mensinger will not take this result as justification for further incidents of throwing his weight around in Costa Mesa and elsewhere. I find myself smiling and thinking how lucky Flores is that Mensinger didn’t have his brand new, “jewel-encrusted” vanity badge at the time, or Mensinger might have tried to arrest him on the spot.

You can play this game on your own by going to “A Bubbling Cauldron.” Aber Vorsicht: Es ist dort unheimlich!

Tapping the outsource: CM now has 4 examples of money-saving outsource efforts

Critics of the Costa Mesa city council’s effort to roll back employee pay and benefits like to suggest that merely studying outsourcing those jobs to private companies or other public entities is a waste of time—or worse, a threat to the public that can be captured only in the language and images of nineteenth-century editorial cartoons in which gigantic squids run railroads or fat men in spats/monocles/top hats and pin stripes feast on babies whilst smoking cigars marked MONOPOLISTS.

When he’s not referring to privatization in epidemiological terms (“’Outsourcing’ Infection Spreads”) the blogger Geoff West prefers the cephalopodic (“‘outsourcing’ and all the ugly tentacles that subject seems to have sprouted”). Over at the Santa Ana HQ of the Orange County Employees Association, it’s an article of religious faith that outsourcing simply can’t work: “The budget numbers this City Council is using to justify outsourcing don’t add up,” the union leadership claims on the page it dedicates to its war against Costa Mesa. The union prefers moralizing to zoological typology: “Outsourcing will cost the city more, and their plan is filled with so many loopholes because it is a political play–not an honest attempt to save money.”

What’s weird, of course, is that we now have evidence that this isn’t a political play, and the numbers do, in fact, add up.

This week, the city got its fourth exhibit that shows, in fact, huge savings are available beyond the world of the Orange County Employees Association: privatizing services at the city jail.

“One proposal is from G4S, which already manages jails for five other Southern California cities including Irvine, La Habra and Beverly Hills,” the Orange County Register reports. “The proposal lists annual costs of $364,640, compared to the city’s fiscal year budget of $1.3 million. The 46 percent savings come from the reduced cost for custody officers and supervisors, according to G4S.”

That was only the latest win for the city council majority. In May, we reported that the numbers were already in on outsourcing the city’s legal work. “In the five years prior to outsourcing, the city’s average annual legal bill was $1,501,976,” interim city communications director Bill Lobdell wrote back then. “In the five years since the Fullerton-based Jones & Mayer private law firm took over the City Attorney’s functions, Costa Mesa’s legal bill has been $945,572.”

In July, Costa Mesa firefighters worked with city staff to produce a study showing that, by merging with Orange County Fire Authority, Costa Mesa could save millions per year with no decline in quality.

The firefighters study made it difficult for the union leadership and its allies in the blogosphere to argue that outsourcing is opposed by much-vaunted first responders. So did the reality of outsourcing helicopter patrols to nearby Huntington Beach in late June. Geoff West, my own favorite council critic, sounded positively apocalyptic 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: “It’s going to be a very long weekend for Costa Mesa public safety folks,” he wrote, at once folksy and just absolutely pie-eyed with terror of the coming End Times. It’s a shame that blogs don’t come with sound-effects because Geoff’s July 5 dispatch from the front might have been heralded by a disappointed-sounding flugelhorn. Headline: “FIRE CHIEF REPORTS A QUIET 4TH.”

Now comes the jail proposal from G4S, a century-old Danish company that is (get this) official provider of security services to the 2012 London Olympic Games. It’ll be tough for the union leadership to argue that outsourcing jail services can’t be done: liberal Irvine already works with G4S, and so does Beverly Hills. The man who brought G4S into the BH jail: Police Chief David Snowden, former chief of the Costa Mesa Police Department, and hardly a guy the Orange County Employees Association (or Geoff West) would argue is a jackboot-wearing fascist in the pay of GOP boss Mike Schroeder.

While staffing the city jail with men and women from G4S (Geoff West translation: “folks”) might save the city some cash, there’s no place of grace where policing is concerned. Security, whether public or private, is an inherently problematic business; I’d recommend you ask Kelly Thomas, the schizophrenic homeless man whom Fullerton police allegedly beat last month, but you can’t because he’s dead. Similarly, G4S  operates in some of the planet’s gnarliest outposts, and the company clearly plays politics with sharp elbows. And then there’s this irony: G4S employees occasionally unionize, and then some actually strike. The company’s got a past, I’m saying.

There’s no utopia/panacea/peace where humans get involved with stuff—neither with public employees nor private employees.

But there’s this, at least: the ability to look at the union leadership’s claims clearly and measure them against the evidence. And when the union leadership argues that outsourcing can’t save money, the facts turn that claim upside down.

As a kind of PS here, let’s just note that Democrats/liberals/progressives are in danger on this issue: if DLPs close their eyes to the obvious problem of rising public employee benefits and salaries because of a misplaced affection for organized labor or a mis-targeted hatred of Republicans (e.g., the council majority), we isolate ourselves from the vast majority of people who—equipped as they are with eyeballs, some modest math skills, and even a modicum of candor—can see that Costa Mesa cannot sustain multi-million-dollar pension programs. The Republicans will rightly claim that progressives can’t add or—worse—that we’re dishonest. And the majority (with eyeballs/math/candor) will rightly vote Republican. We’ll have our asses handed to us as that process of denial/recognition/rage cathexis works itself out in elections across the country, from Costa Mesa to Washington, D.C.

The challenge of public employee unions isn’t right vs. left—as much as the right would like it to look that way. But with the help of corrupt union leaders, the right will make it seem like that (a right/left thing, I mean). And then the deluge.

Who manufactured the ‘manufactured budget crisis’?

Can we all just stipulate to one fact—that the financial challenges facing Costa Mesa are not manufactured (i.e., faked) and they’re not unique to Costa Mesa?

That’s one of the central claims of the union leadership and its allies, and it’s so patently absurd that it hardly seems worth correcting. But it’s everywhere, as common—and bothersome—as methane. And it’s hard to deal with the reality of the problem of rising pensions and benefits when one is constantly waving one’s hand in front of one’s face.

Geoff West repeats the claim so routinely in his blog it’s likely he now actually believes it’s real. (Speaking of Councilmember Jim Righeimer recently, Geoff writes, “So, he fabricates a fiscal crisis and cooks up the ‘outsourcing’ fiasco.”). Over at Orange County Employee Association HQ in Santa Ana, spokesperson Jennifer Muir continues to claim that “the Costa Mesa City Council majority has been hiding money to create a manufactured budget crisis”—despite the fact that her organization’s handpicked auditor looked over the city’s book and denies the claim. “Jackson” echoes that assertion—while dismissing me as a women’s feminine hygiene product in his comment on my most recent post: “Put Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger on a lie detector and ask them if they tried to manufacture a budget crisis to get out of contracts.”

I don’t own a lie detector. But I own a laptop, and it’s connected to the intertubes, where I discovered months ago that, in fact, rising pensions are a problem throughout the country. That makes it seem unlikely that Costa Mesa’s pension troubles are fabricated–unlikely but not impossible, Geoff West will observe, and we’ll agree: but if fabricated, Costa Mesa is part of a conspiracy of similar fakes so vast and so non-partisan (involving as it does Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, etc.) that it would require the firm guidance of an expert in Chaos theory.

Search for the key words “city budget pension union ” as I did, and see what you find. In 15 minutes, I got the following from just the last few days’ headlines:

Central Falls, Rhode Island’s poorest city, sought Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection as it struggles to meet pension obligations.” “The City Council will vote today on the Memphis City Schools’ budget, and also will discuss city layoffs, salary reductions and possible revisions to the city’s retirement system.” “In confining his remarks to the shortfall in the [Chicago’s] main checking account, [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel also didn’t address another looming budget problem in a different fund — the one used to cover rising pension obligations as well as mounting interest and principal.” “[Hollywood, FL] voters would go to the polls Sept. 13 to answer one question: Should public employee benefits be cut as a way to help close the city’s $38 million financial gap?” “‘We are cutting much-needed street paving despite this year’s record numbers of potholes,’ Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a press release. ‘We are slowing our debt repayment despite the fact that doing so has helped restore Minneapolis’ AAA bond rating and save taxpayers money. And we are cutting positions from Police and Fire despite achieving record-low levels of crime this year.’” “The budget forecasts increased pension costs of more than $730,000. Again, Lafayette [LA] isn’t alone. Local governments across the country are trying to come to grips with the growing cost of pension plans, which have been hurt by uncertainty in investment markets over the last decade. Louisiana’s state employee retirement systems face billions in unfunded liabilities.” “How is it possible that [San Francisco] city officials made deep cuts to a general fund that swelled by nearly $300 million? ‘Our expenditures are growing faster than our revenues,’ said Greg Wagner, the mayor’s budget director. ‘We project that even once the economy has recovered and revenues have resumed previous rates of growth, we will still face significant deficits unless we take actions to control growth in costs.’ City officials point to the cost of operating a government is ever-increasing, driven by the escalating cost of workers’ pension and health benefits.” “City seeks budget savings ideas.” “The first order of business with the [Rockford, IL] 2012 budget will be making a decision on public safety pension contributions and whether to pay into the funds as recommended or spend the money elsewhere. 
’Council members know that it will be a difficult year,’ said Central Services Manager Carrie Eklund.” “[New York’s MTA officials] also want the unions to commit to pension reform. By 2015, he estimated that pension spending will balloon to $1.4 billion dollars, while health care costs for employees and retirees will soar to around $1.7 billion. MTA Board member Andrew Saul — chair of the agency’s finance committee — called the agency’s mounting debt problems a ‘ticking time bomb.’”

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.