We tried to speak with Jennifer Muir several times over the last week. But where factchecking is concerned, Muir, spokesperson for the union representing Costa Mesa’s public employees, apparently returns as few calls as she makes. After six calls to her office at the Orange County Employees Association, we spoke to her precisely no times. Perhaps the phones at OCEA are 800 pounds and nearly impossible to lift. Or, as Jennifer herself might say of the Costa Mesa city officials with whom she is at war, 800 pounds and dipped in gold.
In blogging and e-mailing about her union’s fight with the residents of Costa Mesa over pension and healthcare benefits, Muir seems to spend most of her time pounding round pegs into square holes. Fact has become her enemy. After years at the Orange County Register where, we suppose, she was required to check her facts, she has now checked fact at the door. She has shed the gravity of any detail that stands in the way of a story that supports her cause: to shame the city council into maintaining public-employee pensions and benefits that threaten to overwhelm Costa Mesa’s finances.
We called frequently because we wanted to make sure we got the following facts right—a fact in itself that distinguishes us from Muir. We wanted to ask her how she forgot so quickly that old journalism adage, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”**
But, as we say, she did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
We’ve already seen that Muir and the union leadership attempted to transform city maintenance worker Huy Pham’s March 17 suicide into something like Murder One. In Muir’s telling, Pham—pink-slipped by a city council hell-bent on busting the union by privatizing some city services—sank immediately into despair, climbed to the top of City Hall and jumped to his death. For two months, Muir and her allies repeated that theme: outsourcing kills people. And then, in late May, the Daily Pilot reported that the county coroner had found cocaine in Pham’s body. Suddenly, the causes of his death were, like so much in the real world, multivalent, multi-causal, multitudinous. But not for Muir. She has yet to correct her fabrication because (we’re assuming here, and you can’t factcheck assumption) the mythic dive from atop City Hall is more powerful if she and her allies can ascribe it to the butchers operating inside.
Perhaps the failure to correct is because she’s so busy with other works of fiction. In the journalism world, she’d be fired by now—like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke; in Costa Mesa, she pulls down a comfortable salary*** while complaining about the lavish meals furnished the city council; their “jewel-encrusted” badges; the city manager’s $10,000-a-year car allowance; the millions being spent on “cosmetic upgrades” to the City Hall.
None of it’s true. And though the city (via Bill Lobdell, its interim communications director) has politely asked Muir to correct the record, she persists, repeating assertions she knows—or, since the invention of the telephone or maybe the eyeball, ought to know—are false.
We followed Muir’s fall from minor-league reportorial competence to major-league political bullshitter with open-mouth, pie-eyed astonishment; it happened so fast, like one of those sped-up National Geographic films of the ages of man, from fetus to corpse and then to slow disintegration, then mold and higher flora. But we admit here that we would greet her return to Planet Earth with some sadness because we actually also enjoy watching her come untethered from reality. Reading Muir has become a guilty pleasure, the local equivalent of Fox News but with fewer angry Irishmen and her odd, Freudian infatuation with Lobdell.****
Here are our favorite moments of Muir Unhinged, reprinted in large part (with permission) from Lobdell’s own requests for correction. Lobdell being a true gentleman, you may be sure that any bitchiness is strictly the Republic of Costa Mesa’s.
FOOD: Like nineteenth-century political cartoonists, Jennifer Muir is a huge fan of the pig reference, this time in a May 17 email about the city council’s pre-meeting dining ritual: “What we didn’t know was they [city councilmembers] were feeding at the public trough–literally! … The single largest recipient of city meals was the city council, which received more than $4,200 of taxpayer-paid meals at dinners and receptions. … Charging taxpayers for meals while claiming they want to tighten their belts is just another example of Costa Mesa’s city councilmen making taxpayers the biggest losers.” Fact: Can we just say here that you should never use the adverb “literally” unless you mean it? Because we doubt there’s anything like a “public trough” at which city councilmembers are—on bended knees as in church or on all fours as in an actual farmyard/nativity scene—literally “feeding.”***** Nor, the facts show, are they even figuratively porking out: The twice-monthly meals served for years before council meetings to council members and city staff (all of whom [the members and staff] are required to leave work and get to the meeting without a short stop at home for the Trader Joe’s organic three-cheese frozen pizza) ended as a budget-cutting measure in 2010. The current council has never brought in meals paid for by taxpayers.
BADGES: Among our favorite examples of Muir Unhinged is this one, from May 5: “[W]hy spend $425 on jewel-encrusted nameplates for City Council members when a large selection is available online starting under $10?” Fact: These were not “nameplates” but council badges, and, sure, they’re gaudy ornaments, the sort of Entenmann-Rovin thing designed to reshape/remold/alter a simple city councilmember into something we subconsciously associate with besuited law-enforcement (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, DEA GS-14, though this latter requires a two- or three-year tour of HQ) and which (the badges) cost $175 a piece (not $425 each), complete with what appears to be a leatherette holder. You might argue, as I would, that the badges are a waste and may even occasionally produce fraud. But at $200 each (with holder and shipping), we’re not talking about the kind of money that would top off the unfunded $3 million per employee benefits packages the union calls “reasonable.” And then too, where emblems of service are concerned, Costa Mesa is not alone. Most cities provide their councilmembers the same sort of thing. For decades, Costa Mesa has given such badges to all council members when they first take office—like the gavel you might give a newly minted judge. Two such badges were ordered in February for the new council members. “Jewel-encrusted”? Please, Jennifer: You make it sound like a kid’s favorite sprinkle donut. Each badge has a single ruby that serves as the eye of the eagle emblazoned thereon. Related to this misstatement, Muir insists on literary coincidence, asserting (incorrectly, it turns out) that “[t]he nameplates [sic] were ordered on St. Patrick’s Day—the same day the city handed out layoff notices.” That would be interesting if true, but as with much of what Muir says it’s simply not. The badges weren’t ordered on St. Patrick’s Day, but on Feb. 9, 2011. The vendor shipped them to the city on March 17, 2011, which is fascinating in terms of irony, but doesn’t give you the same creepy sense that a ruthless city councilman is firing people with his left hand, selecting badges from the Entenmann-Rovin catalogue with his right . . . and literally feasting at a public trough with a third hand that grows monstrously from the center of a councilmanic forehead as big as the front end of a 2011 Bentley Mulsanne.
THE LAYOFFS, PART I: 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. 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—but that’s because employee association contracts require the half-year warning. The council is using that time to study the possibility of outsourcing city services, and final decisions aren’t expected until later this summer. 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. That appears to be a done deal. 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.
THE LAYOFFS, PART II: The same OCEA advertisement claims Costa Mesa’s city manager pulls down a $10,000 per year car allowance. Fact: We assume (again, no return phone calls) Muir means to suggest city Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch. But Hatch receives a $477 per month ($5,724 per year) car allowance. (Other department heads at City Hall get the same deal.) You can argue that that’s too much, but you can’t argue that it’s $10,000. That would be incorrect.
THE LAYOFFS PART III: “Before the city sent layoff notices,” Muir wrote on May 24, “they did no studies, and they still haven’t conducted a study or sent out a request for proposal to outsource services.” Fact: The Orange County Employees Association used to brag that its members received a contractually mandated six-month warning before city jobs are outsourced. It was one of the perks of union membership. Most of us get the free-market mandated “pack your crap in this box and leave” 15-minute benefit. Because of the long leadtime guaranteed by the OCEA contract, the current council did indeed determine that it would pink-slip first and ask questions later. Following the March 17 dissemination of layoff notices, the city sent out Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for outsourced city business. They’ll use the remainder of the half-year warning period to allow city staff and the public to weigh submitted proposals. At that point, the city may well decide that many jobs may not be outsourced. In which case, you know, the six-month warning might look (in retrospect, that is) not so much like a benefit as a panic-inducing heads-up that requires medical intervention.
THE CITY HALL, PART I: Muir’s “Waste Watcher” e-mails aren’t just factually bad, they’re badly written, like someone banging on a keyboard with hooves. In the May 24 email, she writes, “While saying they had to lay off 213 workers because they are ‘out of money,’ they did it [sic] despite moving forward with more than $7 million budgeted to pay for cosmetic upgrades to City Hall. After we pointed out their misplaced priorities, city leaders told us the makeover was ‘not funded.’ But feast 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!” Fact: We’re eye-feasting averse—believing as we do that eyes and mouths are already too close—and would ask Muir to show us where the proposed City Hall remodeling project is in the budget. We couldn’t find it. Turns out the much-needed City Hall improvements have never been part of any budget, including the 2011-2012 preliminary budget. Routinely included as an attachment to Costa Mesa’s annual budget, the City Hall improvements have gone unfunded for seven years. Why? Because the city’s rising payroll, pension and healthcare benefits make even essential capital improvements unlikely—including improvements to streets, parks, and fire stations. In fact, Muir might more reasonably argue that the failure to fund City Hall improvements is, in fact, an indictment of the city’s unbalanced priorities. Nor is the City Hall work “cosmetic” in some eye-liner-and-lipstick fashion sense. We’re talking basic, lower-level Maslovian air/food/water here: new paint, carpeting, roof repairs and the replacement of an aging heating and AC system. Nor is the city just pulling numbers from its fundament: The $2.2 million estimated for carpeting and wall finishes came from a consultant’s report published in the mid-1990s. The actual cost today would be about $500,000, bringing the cost of the City Hall remodel to about $5.3 million. But, again, you know, unfunded.
THE CITY HALL, PART II: “They’re continuing to spend money on cosmetic upgrades, such as $8,000 for new carpet in the finance department,” Muir reported in the same May 24 email. Fact: Seriously: You have to try to be this wrong. In 2010, before the current council was seated, about half of the finance department’s carpeting was damaged in a Noadic flood caused by a contractor. The contractor****** used his/her own insurance to replace the water-damaged carpeting. Seizing the moment—and, sure, possibly inspired by a kind of porcine fever but more likely by a desire to clean up the joint—the finance department used $8,000 worth of savings in its 2009-2010 budget to replace the remaining worn-out carpeting. “Cosmetic”? Sure. But much of life is cosmetic. For instance, we’re wearing pants right now—a frivolity in Muir’s world but a necessity, it seems, around the Republic of Costa Mesa’s hyper-sensitive interns.
THE LEGAL SETTLEMENT: “Did you know the city recently lost a $6 million judgment for a traffic accident on Adams Ave.?” Muir recently asked. “Neither did we until the city let it slip out at Tuesday night’s budget meeting.” Fact: In 2007, an Orange County jury awarded $8.7 million to a man who sustained a brain injury in a 2005 traffic accident in Costa Mesa. The city was responsible for $5.7 million of the judgment. With the verdict on appeal, the city agreed in April 2010 to settle, paying $1.7 million from its self-insurance fund, and the rest from the city’s insurance. Net impact on city budget: zero dollars and zero cents. All of that occurred over a year before Muir described it as “recent,” and before the current council. Nor did news of the settlement “slip out”: it was mentioned at a recent council study session as an example of how Costa Mesa has kept a lid on its insurance rates by self-insuring for the first $2 million in claims brought against it, after which the insurance company’s coverage kicks in. Then, too, there’s this possibility: that Muir is merely projecting. While claiming that the council is a five-person Central American death squad, it’s imaginable that she is herself so enamored of death (or, in its place, simple agony) that she would prefer that the man to whom the insurance money will be paid should live with the pain of his injuries and should do so in grinding poverty. If so, she can tell him herself: he’s beloved former OCC tennis coach Glenn Morton.
THE CONSULTANT: We’re unclear about the origins of Muir’s obsession with clichés made popular when men still wore top hats, spats and monocles. In a May 20 email, she writes, “The city council went hog-wild with taxpayers’ money, boosting the amount of one no-bid contract from $25,000 to $145,000.” Fact: It seems Muir is referring to the contract calling for a consultant to serve as the city’s interim administrative services director. The amount paid to the consultant is considerably less than the salary and benefits budgeted for the vacant administrative services director position. In this case, the temporary use of a consultant has saved taxpayer money. Also: “Hog-wild.”
THE BUDGET Among the many errors published, republished and otherwise communicated by Muir’s team and in the several echo-chamber blogs that repeat Foxlike her mis-utterances, there’s this one: “The city’s budget is balanced.” Fact: The city is finishing its 2010-2011 fiscal year (ending June 30, 2011) with a projected $1.6 million shortfall. In the past three fiscal years, the city has used more than $30 million of reserve cash to bridge the gap between revenues and expenses. That’s like a 27-year-old tapping her 401k to make a car payment. It’s what the banking world calls a risk indicator. Even using its reserves—and this is key, what Muir and her colleagues in the OCEA’s HQ do not want you to know—the city faces an estimated $130-million unfunded pension liability and a $35.4-million unfunded retirement health benefit liability. The people who manage these funds, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), say annual pension costs to the city will increase over the next several years. Confronted with these numbers, Muir’s team has a fall-back position: “The city’s pension projections are ‘subjective’ and disingenuous” or “The city’s pension projections have not been confirmed by CalPERS actuaries.” In fact, the council’s numbers come from the aforementioned CalPERS and an independent actuary. Muir will next complain that math is subjective.
We could go on, but you get the picture: These are indeed complicated issues, and it seemed for a brief moment earlier this year that, in hiring a former Register reporter, the OCEA was committed to a reasoned argument about the them (the issues). Instead, they found a former reporter whose greatest aspiration is fiction.
* We also considered “Jennifer Muir’s Reign of Error.”
**Perhaps her mother didn’t love her. In neo-Freudian circles, Electra complex-related conflicts between mothers and daughters if unresolved produce this just absolute desperation for affection, including the affection for/of, say, a provisional family–i.e., workplace, union, etc. That blind affection produces even in women of great beauty (e.g., Muir herself) a willingness to abandon the ethical code of the actual mother in favor of that of the ersatz domestic unit. We’re not doctors, but just huge fans of Group Psyschology and an Analysis of the Ego, Civilization and its Discontents, et al.
***One of the questions we’d like to ask Jennifer is how much she makes–given her obsession with the fact that interim city communications guy Bill Lobdell (a nationally recognized editor, investigative reporter, UC Irvine lecturer and author) makes $3,000 per week, but with absolutely no benefits and a three-month contract. Muir mentions Lobdell’s salary at almost every opportunity in a way that suggests another psychological malady, the well-publicized but terribly misunderstood Tourette syndrome.
****Ibid., *** above.
***** Her confusion about a word that means “actual” or “factual” or “real” as opposed to parallel or similar or figurative is really illuminating.
******We imagine he or she was just positively chagrined, and now has to send Muir flowers along with a note saying thanks for the reminder of my worst day on the job.