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A life lost, a city changed

Costa Mesa workers, officials reflect on a tough year following a suicide at City Hall. Employees say they are closer to one another but morale has declined.

March 16, 2012|By Joseph Serna and Jenny Stockdale
  • Huy Pham
Huy Pham (unknown )

It started March 1, 2011.

The Costa Mesa City Council voted 4 to 1 to send out hundreds of notices to city workers telling them that in six months they would be replaced.

For the council majority, the ball got rolling. They had taken their first step toward a vision of a leaner, meaner city government that was cheaper to run and faster to act. For council critics, they could point to a concrete council decision and argue that the majority acted without thinking through the details.

About two weeks later, onSt. Patrick's Day, it all took an even more serious, grave turn.

City maintenance worker Huy Pham, 29, jumped to his death from the fifth story of City Hall. The repercussions of that incident are still echoing.

Councilman Gary Monahan, a target of the council's critics, stepped down as mayor this week after his toughest year ever; a community group formed last March continues to grow.

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City employees, meanwhile, have formed stronger bonds.

"We, as employees in this past year, there's been a lot of trust issues, so we've had to rely on each other to get us through the day to day," said Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. "We just look out for each other a little more.

"Living in uncertainty, having five layoff notices and doing everything we can possibly do — there's good days and bad days, and employees are conscious of that."

Pham, like many of his colleagues, was supposed to receive his layoff notice March 17, 2011, but was out on injury leave at the time. It's still unclear why, but the hardworking jack-of-all-trades drove to City Hall, climbed a stairwell onto the fifth-story roof, meandered for a bit and then leapt off the east side of the building.

"It will have an effect on the employees for the rest of their lives," Nenadal said. "We lost a family member that day, and that's never going to go away."

No one is certain why Pham took his life, but it became apparent that there were other issues. He had been healing from the injury and taking medication. Traces of cocaine were found in his system.

"I think most people think it's unfortunate, and that most people understand that though it's unfortunate, their job is a minor part of their life," Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said. "A lot of people in the community were upset with how it was portrayed, that the City Council was held responsible somehow. I think a lot of people took offense to it."

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