Tag Archives: OC Weekly

Trick or trick: OC Weekly gets the pension crisis wrong (again)

OC Weekly just came out with its annual Halloween issue, this year naming Bill Lobdell1, Costa Mesa’s public information officer, to its list of “Orange County’s 31 Scariest People.”

Lobdell is “the $3,000-per-week bagman for the city of Costa Mesa, whose city council is pleading poverty while attempting to outsource hundreds of city jobs,” an unnamed Weekly staffer wrote. “The mind that once antagonized everyone from Robert Schuller to Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown is now writing hosannas about the city’s proposed belt-tightening and unleashing the same chihuahua-esque snarls against reporters that Catholic Church officials released on him not too long ago.”

Minds, of course, rarely antagonize anyone except their owners, and they never write anything (the claims of psychography notwithstanding), and there’s no evidence of the genial Lobdell snarling—though his September 8 letter to the Weekly’s editor re an encyclopedia of errors in the paper’s September 1 cover story about Costa Mesa produced a remarkable two apologies (one from the author and another from the editor) for 13 errors of fact in a single story. Woof!

But what’s really scary about the entry isn’t the author’s amnesia w/r/t Lobdell—his/her apparent failure to recall that Lobdell’s complaint was, well, apparently legitimate and not merely some impulsive canine fear/aggression vocal-response thing. What’s more Edvard Munchian terrifying is the author’s/editor’s/paper’s suggestion that the city is merely “pleading poverty,” that the pension crisis threatening Costa Mesa’s finances is somehow fabricated—that it’s a myth generated by right-wing Republicans looking for an excuse to destroy public-employee unions.

To accept that narrative you have to be bad at (a) math and (b) reading. The numbers don’t lie, and the numbers show that Costa Mesa—like many American cities (about which more in a moment)—can no longer afford the costs associated with the rising pay and benefits of their public employees. Moody’s downgraded the city’s bond rating because it is under-reserved; it’s under-reserved because past councils tapped $32 million in reserves to pay for operating costs that exceeded annual revenues—even as they eliminated 140 positions and reduced or cut a variety of city services. Union leaders are now pressing the city to dig deeper—to spend on pensions cash the city has saved for such luxuries as insurance and the maintenance/replacement of vehicles. If you want to know how that finance model works in the real world, please see Santa Ana: Following precisely that strategy, Orange County’s capital city is near bankruptcy.

But you’d never know that reading OC Weekly—perhaps because the author of the Lobdell blurb doesn’t read much. If he/she wanted real scarifying, he/she might consider Voice of OC reporter Adam Elmahrek’s hair-raising investigative piece on Santa Ana. Elmahrek found Santa Ana “is essentially living paycheck to paycheck.” City Manager Paul Walters has said his city should have $35 million in cash on hand; Elmahrek found Santa Ana’s “general fund balance at the end of September was $313,343.50.” Now Santa Ana is following an outsourcing plan that looks remarkably like Costa Mesa’s—but far larger.

The Weekly might have had the Santa Ana story—might, in other words, have provided a real public service—but was preoccupied with slavishly recycling hyperbolic/misleading/incorrect press releases published by the Orange County Employees Association in the union’s war with Costa Mesa. Hence the memetic appearance of Lobdell’s salary in union press releases and in the Weekly—as if his salary ($3k per week) is somehow extraordinary. What makes it extraordinary? The Weekly’s blurb’s author doesn’t say; it’s apparently enough for him/her that the union has repeated it with such incantatory regularity that the WBA’s now accepts that it must be remarkable. In fact, at least one neighboring city public information officer with far less experience makes far more: Irvine spokesperson Craig Reem pulls downs nearly $200k/year plus benefits and pension, and is assisted by a staff of four. And it’s inarguable that having the former Times investigative reporter run the Costa Mesa press office has produced greater openness—something real reporters applaud. Lobdell’s work on Costa Mesa’s official website earned the Sunshine Review’s highest rating. He helped create unprecedented access to the city’s budget process, in part by building publishing the city’s financial information on the website; because Lobdell put the city’s checkbook on the website, taxpayers can see every penny Costa Mesa spends. He helped set up study sessions so John Q. Costa Mesa could not only put a lamp on the city’s numbers but understand them. And at a time when union spokesperson Jennifer Muir was stating with uncanny precision precisely the opposite of what’s true, Lobdell stepped in and produced my favorite feature, “Fact Check.”

Knowing all this—or at least having it all available on the intertubes—you’d think the Weekly’s editors might reconsider their position on Costa Mesa. That they haven’t, that they’ve allowed someone in the dusk-to-dawn newsroom to continue (zombielike) cranking out factless accounts of the Costa Mesa pension crisis like that old B&W movie in which a murderer’s hand is hacked off but continues to kill and kill and kill again?

That’d be pants-wettingly scary if it weren’t, at this point, utterly predictable.

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1. Usual full disclosure here about my friendship with Lobdell and most of the staff of OC Weekly, which I ran from 1995 to 2007.

A Tale of Two Cities: Santa Ana follows Costa Mesa on outsourcing, but media maintain radio silence

A full week after the city of Santa Ana declared that it’s just absolutely screwed budgetwise, there’s been almost nothing in the media, and nothing at all on the obviously related story: where public employee pay and benefits are concerned, Costa Mesa’s much-reviled council majority has been right all along.

On September 19, Santa Ana officials announced they face a $30 million deficit, and will make major cuts in public services, capital investments, and employee compensation.

Paul Walters, the city’s top manager and chief of police, said the disaster is a result of following too closely union leaders’ budget advice. “To bridge the structural deficit,” Walters wrote in his sprawling Budget Stabilization Plan, “the city’s unrestricted fund balance was used to maintain city services.”

That’s precisely what the union has tried to impose in Costa Mesa; in Santa Ana the tactic has produced a catastrophe. There’s still a deficit to fill, but the reserves Santa Ana tapped in the past few years are pretty much tapped out—down to just $5 million, Walters says, a seventh of the level recommended by an independent association of government finance officials.

Now, Walters says, there’s nothing to do but break out the knives. Among his options, Walters has proposed outsourcing some 14 city services, including police, fire, animal control, fleet management and jails.

“That’s not something the city wants to do, it’s not a preference,” he said. “None of the things are preferences.”

Costa Mesa chose to act more quickly, electing last fall a council majority that took on the union leadership. It wasn’t easy. The police union hired trucks to haul then-candidate Jim Righeimer’s mug around under a banner declaring him a liar and a hater of babies. The Orange County Employees Association hired Register reporter Jennifer Muir to mass-produce press releases promoting the union’s spin that reserve cash—“hidden pots of money,” she called it—should be used to pay this year’s operational expenses.

With the exception of her former colleagues at the Register, reporters and bloggers have typically reprinted without question Muir’s hyperbolic claims—each union press release just a catalog of easily checked errors, 10 pounds of manure stuffed into a 5-pound bag.

Now that the union experiment has run its dark course in Santa Ana, what do we get from the media? Nothin’ but hushed insectile chattering and the bony rattle of the odd windblown tumbleweed—tumbleweeds clattering by the normally methamphetaminic pro-union A Bubbling Cauldron. Tumbleweeds cartwheeling across the masthead of the weirdly silent Liberal OC. The Mouth that Normally Roars at OC Weekly still opens and closes but emits only a distant mechanical clanking sound.

The Daily Pilot has this to say Santa Ana’s meltdown: “[ . . . . ].” Same creepy quiet over at the once-monumental Los Angeles Times.

There’ve been two notable exceptions in the past week, reporter Andrew Galvin’s “City looks at outsourcing fire, jail, zoo, library” in the Reg, and Adam Elmarek’s fine “‘Survival or Total Destruction’” on the Voice of OC website.

But otherwise it’s as if the earth yawned and gagged down Santa Ana, as if reporters and bloggers suddenly developed some weird hypomnesiac response vis-a-vis the hole where Santa Ana used to be, as if the city named by Father J. Serra never was—as if F Serra himself never was—as if that sprawling, smoking chasm and stink of corpses around the junction of the 55 and 5 freeways were always there.

Media silence is what you get when reporters suddenly realize that the hypotheses on which they operated for a year were all wrong—and but now they can’t get the old brain into reverse. All you hear is maybe gears grinding.

It’s not so much that reporters at the Times, Pilot and Weekly, or bloggers at Liberal OC and A Bubbling Cauldron believed in nothing, but that they believed with the childlike faith of snake-handling Christians in the left/right, Democrat/Republican binary worldview that Muir & Co. pitched them as a cover for the union’s single-minded campaign to raise pay and benefits no matter what: Republicans are always bad, and the union leadership is a titan of human progress.

Now that Santa Ana’s Democratic council majority is prepared to take a flensing knife to public employee compensation, it’s impossible to maintain the union leadership’s fiction that what troubles Costa Mesa is right-wing Republicans. In a single council meeting in Santa Ana last week, the union leadership’s yearlong propaganda campaign ran into economic and political reality.

There should have been headlines on September 20–something to compare with the hundreds of banner stories on Costa Mesa’s pension war. But all we’ve gotten so far is an extended moment of silence.

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.

One law firm represents union leaders in Costa Mesa pension fight and cops in Fullerton beating death

The law firm of Silver, Hadden, Silver, Wexler & Levine1 had a busy July, simultaneously representing the Orange County Employees Association in their pension war on Costa Mesa while (up the 55 and 91 freeways)  defending cops in the fatal beating of Fullerton resident Kelly Thomas.

Thomas’ death following a July 5 altercation with six city police officers set off a protest movement in Fullerton that has united right and left. “This, I think, historically is the most tragic thing that has happened in Fullerton, the biggest crisis,” said Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva2, who has asked the city police chief to resign. Quirk-Silva, a Democrat, was joined in that asking–which, in video at least, appears to be more of a demand–by Republican Bruce Whitaker.

It has also generated a super-heated Internet controversy, with some commentators angrily denouncing police. That’s where the Santa Monica firm of S2 came in. In a July 15 letter to Fullerton blogger Tony Bushala, S2, representing the Fullerton Police Officers’ Association, took issue with Bushala’s claim that one of the officers “smashed poor Kelly’s head into pieces after he’d been taser [sic] several times.”

“The insults that you have posted . . . on your blog is [sic] deplorable and indefensible,” S2’s Michael Simidjian wrote. “In particular, you have elected to sensationalize the July 5, 2011, incident involving Mr. Kelly Thomas with a blatant disregard for the truth.”

Simidjian goes on pretty pyrotechnically3 himself, referring to Bushala’s comments as “unconscionable,” a word choice which, in context, seems almost, well, unconscionable.4 S2 demands that Bushala retract, apologize for and remove the offending comments. Failing that, Simidjian says he will advise his clients “to take all appropriate action against you.”5

Bushala’s comments appeared on his own site, Friends for Fullerton’s Future. Without taking responsibility for everything on the guy’s site6, one can say this: it’s a site that has broadcast just unstinting criticism of the city’s pension system.

Just days before Thomas’ death, on July 6, S2 attorneys appeared before Orange County Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann7We’ve already reported that S2 convinced Judge8 to enjoin the city from doing what it not only has a legal right to do (i.e., study outsourcing the work of city employees as a means of balancing its budget), but that the union (i.e., S2’s client) accepted that right in its previous Memoranda of Understanding.

But what’s really WTF-level bizarre about S2’s attack on Bushala9 is the firm’s stated preference for a broader reading of the First Amendment. In a February 17, 2010, press release, for instance, S2 decried the decline of speech rights: “While free speech is not dead for public employees, the recent cases show that the pendulum is swinging in the ‘wrong’ direction.”

But as you read the release, it’s clear that First Amendment boosterism around the conference tables at S2’s SM HQ runs only so far as public employee associations (S2’s apparent jurisprudential bread and butter) are concerned.10 On April 22, 2008, for instance, S2 abandoned all interest in the First, announcing that it was seeking an injunction to stop the Orange County Register from publishing names of OCEA members’ compensation. A few months before, on December 21, 2007, S2 won an injunction against the City of L.A.’s effort to identify suspiciously rich detectives by requiring regular financial disclosures of all cops involved in drug and gang investigations.

So much for the public’s right to know.

It would be childish, of course, to expect such lawyers to be sensitive around corpses or to be nuanced in their reading of the Constitution. Their job is to win. Ours11 is to tell the truth. So, leveraging the First Amendment, let’s warn our fellow citizens that, in their battle against the extremist public employee unions that would beggar the public, Silver, Hadden, Silver, Wexler & Levine is not your friend.12

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1. Hereafter, ” S2.”

2. “Quirk.”

3. (i.e., sensationally)

4. Simidjian continues: Bushala’s comments “vilify and dehumanize” the officer, are “baseless vitriol,” “reckless and defamatory,” and (again) “defamatory” and “malicious,” and demonstrate “an utter lack of concern” for said officer. All of this, as we say, in context (i.e., a beating death), is just head-shakingly disproportional w/r/t to the dead victim.

5. Thank Jeebus for the stipulative “appropriate” is all we can say.

6. I haven’t read it all, or even much of it, but don’t think that’s really apex of the confab here.

7. Itself a name of such polynomic complexity that it, too, sounds like a law firm, and makes the simple titular “Judge” seem less titular and more urban-hip/intimate/efficient, so that e.g., Orange County Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann is likely called simply “Judge,” even on the homefront, as in the case of actor J. Reinhold–though, for all we know, J. Reinhold goes by “Orange County Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann.” It’s possible, is all.

8. “Judge,” ibid.

9. (that is, in addition to the whole counter-contextual problem in which an attorney describes as “deplorable” speech acts regarding an actual man’s actual death)

10. The firm’s website (headline: “Protecting the Protectors”) leads with its victory before Judge.

11. I.e., yours and mine.

12. Apologies to my friend Paul Frank.

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.

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

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

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

Why would Berkeleyites do such a thing?

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

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

We hope so too. But we have our doubts.

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, she would.**

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

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

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

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

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

*** Ibid.

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

What Made Pham Jump?

When city worker Huy Pham died March 17, the public employees union representing him and hundreds of other Costa Mesa workers quickly made him a saint, asserting that Pham’s leap from City Hall was a reasonable–if tragic–response to hard-hearted officials prepared to kill everyone in order to balance the city’s budget.

On May 26, that narrative collapsed when the Daily Pilot revealed that the county coroner found cocaine in the 29-year-old maintenance worker’s body.

This is why Catholics typically wait years before canonization.

Until the Pilot report, critics had seized on Pham’s death* as evidence that the council majority was either incompetent, heartless, or both. Councilmember Wendy Leece–an evangelical conservative who opposes any talk of outsourcing city work–reportedly told the Voice of OC that Pham’s death was “a clear signal that the City Council should slow the process down. ‘I hope they [the council majority] rescind the pink slips and come back and do their homework.’”

This was part of the developing story line: that Pham’s death was foreseeable to everyone but a ruthless council majority pushing for budget cuts. The Voice of OC said Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Association, was “devastated by Pham’s death”–devastated though it did “not surprise her.”

“She said she had a meeting about the layoffs with Costa Mesa Mayor Gary Monahan on Tuesday and expressed serious concerns about the health and welfare of employees,” the Voice of OC reported. “‘He didn’t seem too concerned,’ Nenandal said.”

Union supporters found themselves choosing between just two options: Was the council nonchalant or pathological? The Pacific Progressive blog quickly labeled the mayor “Murdering Monahan.” “And remember,” the blog asserted, Pham’s death “was caused by financial presentations that were crafted to create a crisis.  Costa Mesa lies and a man dies.”

The Orange County Employee’s Association quickly cranked out an advertisement that transformed a clearly troubled guy into a symbol of the union’s struggle against injustice.

 

A myth–cultivated by union PR staffers–grew up around Pham, not just that his suicide was somehow inevitable**, but that the impromptu candlelit vigils that followed soon coalesced into an organic movement to derail the killing machine inside City Hall.

“Unfortunately, it took a real tragedy to get us organized, and it started partly because we just started talking on the steps of City Hall, whether we were standing with a candle or bringing flowers,” former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis told OC Weekly back then. “For now, we’re asking the city council to rescind its action, regarding outsourcing of most of the jobs. I don’t know if they will, but we’ll give them a chance.”

It’s tempting at this point to say that Pham jumped because he was high on coke. But that would simply mirror the illogic of the union’s position–what the Romans called post hoc ergo propter hoc, the illusion that events are caused by one of the things that precedes them.

Did Pham jump because he knew he was going to be pink-slipped that afternoon, as the union asserted? Or did he jump because of the coke in his system? Or both? Or neither? Politics hates mystery, but life is marbled with it.

It was always unfair to turn Pham into an icon; the prospect of unemployment is rarely pleasant, but none of the other pink-slipped employees have jumped, and few Americans respond to unemployment by killing themselves. And so it seemed only an oddball–or former Register reporter-turned-union spokesperson Jennifer Muir***–would ignore the myriad forces at work in Pham’s death, and pound the square peg of his suicide into the round hole of Costa Mesa politics, to alchemize Pham into Crispus Attucks.

It’s Muir, of course, whose use of time clocks has become a regular feature of her blog posts on behalf of the union leadership. In one, she reminds us that “it’s been 23 days since [City Councilman Jim] Righeimer was asked to release personal e-mails regarding official deliberations on outsourcing and the layoff notices sent to 213 employees. We’re still waiting for those e-mails.”

Jennifer: How long will it take before you apologize, on behalf of the union leadership, for suggesting that heartless men killed Huy Pham? Start the clock!

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* Still unclear whether Pham jumped or fell, mind you, though every report I can find cites no evidence in concluding that it was the former.

** Which just weirdly defies simple arithmetic, given that the death of one out of some 200 workers (about 0.05%) indicates that this is an anomaly worth pausing to consider–out of regard for math itself if not the memory of the actual human in the equation.

*** This is not intended to suggest that Jennifer Muir is an oddball. For one thing, she has these just beautiful eyes, and it’s a well-known fact that oddballs have bad eyes, whence comes the expression weird eyeballs, or “odd balls.”