Tag Archives: Daily Pilot

Jennifer Muir 2.0: Pension fight requires us all to suffer radical memory loss

To forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.

–George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

When she was a reporter at the Orange County Register, Jennifer Muir was an advocate of aggressive reporting and the public’s right to know. In stories that appeared in the Reggie’s “Watchdog” section, Muir ranged across Santa Ana, kicking ass and publishing the names of well-paid county employees and their compensation.1

But today Muir is highly paid herself. And as spokesperson for the Orange County Employees Association, the organization that represents some 200 Costa Mesa city workers, she has a different perspective: the public should mind its own damn business.

Responding to the release yesterday of the City of Costa Mesa’s “Public Employee Compensation Report,” Muir was apoplectic. “This gives the public a completely incorrect picture regarding compensation,” she told the Daily Pilot. “Arguably, releasing employees’ names along with their salaries only remotely serves any public benefit at all. Its most obvious effect is to further a political agenda that demonizes the city workforce and once again needlessly undermines the already fragile morale of employees who have now become accustomed to undeserved attacks by city-elected officials and executives, who should be their advocates.”

But this is Jennifer Muir version 2.0.

The older one—Jennifer Muir v. 1.0, the reporter who worked for the Reg until earlier this year—would kick 2.0 square in the babymaker. A little more than a year ago, in April 2010, Muir 1.0 published the names of the 25 county employees taking the largest cash payout of unused sick time.

About the same time, in “Questionable pension practices identified at county,” Muir 1.0 ID’d two county employees whose pay was increased just before retirement in order to jack up the salaries by which their pensions would be calculated.

In “County backtracks, releases deputy deal numbers,” Muir 1.0 was at it again, citing a Reg investigation that named the names of highly paid sheriff’s deputies.

We could go on. But you get the picture: Muir 2.0 will say whatever she must in her union’s war to preserve unsustainable salaries and benefits.

Typically that means she’ll suggest that Costa Mesa’s city council majority is an insane killin’ machine powered by a high-octane blend of testosterone and Republican ideology. That was certainly her claim after the March 17 suicide of city maintenance worker Huy Pham. For months Muir’s union and its allies in the media treated Pham like the protagonist in Weekend at Bernie’s. In their oft-told tale, Pham was 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. Fostered by the union and its allies, a myth grew up around the dead man: the impromptu candlelit vigils that followed his death coalesced organically into a movement to derail the men running the slaughterhouse inside City Hall.

For two months, Muir 2.0 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 the 29-year-old maintenance worker’s body. Suddenly, the causes of his death were, like so much in the real world, multivalent, multi-causal, multitudinous.

In June, when the city announced that it would investigate Pham’s death, the woman who did so much to turn private anguish into public spectacle urged the city to move along as if nothing happened. There was Pham’s family to consider, she said: “They just want Huy to rest in peace and hope that everyone respects that.”

But the investigation continued. And when Jon Cassidy, Muir’s former colleague at the Reg, published the details on August 5, Muir just completely misplaced her feces.

“This is an obvious attempt to once again discredit a young man who was a good son, a good brother, a good co-worker, and a conscientious worker for the citizens of Costa Mesa,” she told Cassidy.

Then, in a splendid bit of journalism, Cassidy revealed that Muir called “[a]fter this story was first published . . . to insist that the following be included with the above quotation: ‘Whoever leaked this information is in violation of the law. We are requesting an immediate investigation by the City Manager.’

“Muir could not name a law she thought was being violated,” Cassidy added. “Privacy laws do not apply to the dead. Pham’s personnel file is now public record under California law.”

Having worked at the Reg, Muir knows that, of course. Geoff West, the blogger behind “A Bubbling Cauldron,” has no such experience, and so his absolutely weird/broken reading of the city’s compensation report can be chalked up to a simple breakdown in logic.

“I guess I’m OK with the City providing this information,” West wrote August 9. “[B]ut as an old Human Resources professional, it bothers me that the confidentiality of employee compensation has been so dramatically violated.” Only in the Bubbling Cauldron can someone be OK with dramatic violations.


1. This wasn’t just a matter of Muir’s idiosyncratic interest in other peoples’ incomes, or some rainmanish obsession with numbers, but of well-established American law and culture. In the storm-tossed 1970s, following such debacles as Watergate and the Vietnam war, politicians responded to public pressure for greater government transparency. Building on the First Amendment, the federal government (in the Freedom of Information Act) and states (in  California, the California Public Records Act) provided for almost unlimited access to public documents, including public employee compensation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

***** Ibid., * above.

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

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

When titans clash! Auditors disagree mildly over Costa Mesa finances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would Berkeleyites do such a thing?

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

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

We hope so too. But we have our doubts.

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, she would.**

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

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

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


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

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

*** Ibid.

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

Nothin’ to see here! Pham suicide probe panics union

Costa Mesa said today it would take a second, deeper look into the suicide of Huy Pham, the city maintenance worker who either leapt or fell from atop City Hall, March 17–the same day the city handed out layoff notices to  some 200 public employees.

In a press release, the city said it has hired Talon Executive Services for “litigation support in anticipation of litigation — a common practice.”

Some observers said the move suggests the city anticipates a lawsuit, perhaps from Pham’s family. But Jennifer Muir, spokesperson for the Orange County Employees Association that represented Pham and the other redundant workers, said she’s spoken to the Phams and, whatever the city’s intention, it’s time to move on.

“They just want Huy to rest in peace and hope that everyone respects that,” Muir told the Daily Pilot.

That’s a radical departure for Muir and her allies, who for months treated Pham like the protagonist in Weekend at Bernie’s. In their oft-told tale, Pham was 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. Fostered by the union and its allies, a myth grew up around the dead man: the impromptu candlelit vigils that followed his death coalesced organically into a movement to derail the killing machine inside City Hall.

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 the 29-year-old maintenance worker’s body. Suddenly, the causes of his death were, like so much in the real world, multivalent, multi-causal, multitudinous.

And now the woman who did so much to turn private anguish into public spectacle wants us to move along as if nothing happened. But the city can’t afford to pretend that nothing happened–thanks in large part to Muir and her supporters. Pham’s family can’t have been deaf to the claim that Pham was all but pushed off the roof of City Hall by councilmembers Jim Righeimer, Steve Mensinger and Mayor Gary Monahan, the men most determined to reduce city spending.

Nor is Muir alone in asking us to move along. Over at A Bubbling Cauldron, Geoff West argues that re-opening the case is “a backhand” to Costa Mesa’s Finest, “all those men and women who performed the initial investigation. It makes one wonder if this may not just be a preamble to dumping the entire CMPD and hiring a bunch of mercenaries to ‘police’ our city — kind of like Falloujah.”* Like Muir, West can see Pham’s death only through the distorting lens of the public employees’ war with the council majority.

Or maybe West is onto something–maybe the Costa Mesa Police Department really does have something to fear from an outside investigation. Reading over the CMPD report** on Pham’s death, Register reporter Jon Cassidy noted, “There are several questions the report does not answer. Who was the last person to see Pham? What was the last thing he said? Did anyone tell him something that set him off? Did anyone call him in to work? Did anyone at City Hall see him on March 17? Had his family noticed any unusual behavior? Is there anything unusual in his phone or email records?”

Fair questions. And here’s one more: Why are union leaders and their allies in the blogosphere suddenly so eager to change the subject?


* What’s weird here is that West is a very smart guy, but I can’t help thinking he doesn’t really mean to invoke Fallujah, where on March 31, 2004, employees of the infamous private security firm Blackwater were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents who savagely beat and burned the mercenaries and then hung their blackened corpses from a bridge over the Euphrates. I don’t think that’s what anyone has in mind for Talon. So probably just a confusing reference.

** On May 25, the Republic of Costa Mesa requested this same document. Three weeks later,*** on June 15, the city clerk’s office told us we could pick up the report that day. Today, police told us that we could fill out a request for the document; approval will take “about a week.” When we checked back with the city clerk’s office about the confusion, our contact there insisted that her June 15 email (“The police report is now available for pick up at the Front Desk of Police Dept. The cost for the report is $9 and you will need to show proper ID”) doesn’t mean what we think it means.

*** The California Public Records Act is pretty clear that these sorts of docs ought to be released more quickly.

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!


* 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.”