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.
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.