City Life: A mallet won't work on city budget now

September 13, 2011|By Steve Smith

Costa Mesa's fiscal challenge is not a mole that just popped up out of the ground this year — or even last year.

The problem developed over the last 10 or so years, during a time when the City Council could make no mistakes. Unlike Whac-a-Mole, it will take more than one hit to make the problem disappear.

During those mistake-free days we were all shopping 'til we dropped at South Coast Plaza, buying cars on Harbor Boulevard and frequenting the city's many excellent restaurants. There was money for anything — even $500,000 for a worthless bridge over Placentia Avenue at Fairview Park.


Life was good. But that life was an illusion.

The reality is that just about anyone can govern well and be a hero when there is a lot of money to spend. Under the leadership of former Mayor Allan Mansoor, whose adult life has consisted almost entirely of public sector jobs, the city negotiated the union contracts that are now causing some of the money woes facing the city today. (In fairness, it should be noted that Mansoor voted against the Placentia Avenue bridge.)

It is a mistake, though, to blame Mansoor alone, for it took a majority of council votes to approve any agreement. It is also a mistake to blame the union representatives for being effective negotiators.

Union leadership succeeded in preserving jobs and improving conditions for its members, which is certainly its most important function. How the union goes about achieving its results is important too and it would be another mistake for either side in this battle to claim clean hands.

For its part, the current council majority may have been able to reduce the scope of this war and preempt questionable union tactics through better communication. The council should have laid out its long-term plan early on with city staff through a series of face-to-face meetings with each department.

At those meetings, council members should have told workers of their value, sincerely, and should have put out a call for viable ideas from the rank-and-file to help resolve the current challenges. This last hindsight recommendation is one born of experience.

In one of my former lines of work, I discovered that the best ideas for efficiency and revenue enhancement came not from the highly paid bigwigs but from the folks who actually have to sell the product or provide the service.

Daily Pilot Articles Daily Pilot Articles