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Harlan: What's the harm in exaggeration?

May 12, 2012|By Jeffrey Harlan

Editor's note: Jeffrey Harlan, an urban planner who lives in Costa Mesa, has agreed to write a Sunday column for the Daily Pilot. This is his first.

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We all recognize, and to some extent accept, that politicians exaggerate. During the campaign season, especially, we are bombarded with hyperbolic claims.

But when the dust has settled after an election, the victors have a new obligation to their constituents, and a higher bar is set for dealing with the real facts. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said it best: "We campaign in poetry, and we govern in prose."

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Although I'd hardly call it poetry, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer recently misstated facts about Costa Mesa on TV, then cloaked them as a harmless exaggeration.

While on CNBC's "Squawk Box" the morning of May 1, he explained to the interviewer that "we have arguably the No.1 sales tax generating, you know, shopping area, South Coast Plaza, on the planet, and we can't slurry seal our streets."

Anyone who has driven in Righeimer's neighborhood of Mesa Verde lately would know that the city repaved more than 100 streets last fall to the tune of $3 million. Near my Eastside neighborhood, the city is about to undertake a $6.3-million street rehabilitation project paid by gas tax and Measure M revenue.

But let's not allow actual, on-the-ground facts to get in the way of making an ideologically driven point. The councilman's point, of course, is that Costa Mesa is so financially strapped because the labor unions have contracts that put a stranglehold on our municipal budget.

Referring to our public safety personnel and their exorbitant pensions, which presumably exacerbate the problem, he offered this fine sound bite: "We don't want to kick them to the alley, but we don't want to kick them to the beach. They can't go to the beach."

Poetry indeed.

So how does this little misstatement and campaign rhetoric really harm Costa Mesans? First of all, when I turn on the TV and see my local representative on a national program, I would hope that he'd have his facts straight. Surely few, if any, of the people who actually watched the program know the details of Costa Mesa's fiscal situation.

But to us at home, the facts matter. Period.

I'm more troubled that our council majority, with Righeimer as its spokesman, is sending potential investors exactly the wrong message about Costa Mesa. Publicly (and flippantly) disparaging our community is not a sound economic development strategy.

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