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City puts COIN to work

Backers say new law improves transparency in personnel negotiations. Association says not to take numbers at face value.

February 15, 2013|By Jill Cowan

With one employee union contract set to expire in March, Costa Mesa has its first chance to implement some of the provisions of its Civic Openness in Negotiations, or COIN, ordinance, aimed at creating greater transparency in the city's dealings with its employees.

Per a COIN requirement, the city on Friday released a financial analysis of its contract with members of the Costa Mesa City Employee Assn.

The financial analysis, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said, aims to break down in a legible way the real cost — dollar amounts, rather than jargon-heavy calculations — of each employee to the city. COIN requires posting the costs a month before negotiations start.

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"It deconstructs the [contract] so that the general public can understand it," Mensinger said.

But while some officials have hailed the document as a big step forward for transparency, a representative for the employees in question cautioned against taking the city's numbers at face value.

"The city's perspective will be posted online and shared through the COIN ordinance," said Orange County Employees Assn. spokeswoman Jennifer Muir.

The analysis lists, in addition to an employee's base salary, the cost of that employee's cafeteria plan benefits, bilingual pay and unfunded pension liability, among other items.

Muir said that while she couldn't say yet whether the association would release its own financial analysis, the association is in the process of reviewing the city's accounting.

The group, she said, likely will have "a number of questions."

At its Tuesday meeting, the City Council likely will vote to implement another component of COIN requiring the hiring of an independent negotiator to work throughout the process.

Then, when negotiations move forward, the council must open the back-and-forth of offers and counter offers to public scrutiny. In most cities, Costa Mesa officials say, those discussions, which take place in closed sessions, don't give residents a chance to really understand what's taking place.

Although COIN was passed last year, "it didn't matter until a contract came up," Mayor Jim Righeimer said Friday, "so it's the first time being used."

Oversight committee

Next week, the council will also consider establishing a citizens' pension oversight committee, Mensinger said Friday — a move not mandated by the ordinance, but inspired by the same spirit.

"Collectively, all these things we're doing are unique in city government transparency," he said.

In general, Muir said, "our feeling was that COIN didn't go far enough."

"A lot of attention is focused across the county on money going out the front end — the cost of employees to run the city," she said, "but there's very little attention paid to how money goes out the back end."

Ideally, she said, the union would like to see more rigorous transparency about the discussions that take place leading up to the bids for city contracts.

Mensinger said his answer is that "COIN is a personnel ordinance" that addresses most of the city's budget, whereas contracts take up less money overall.

Still, he said, "any suggestions they have, we're more than happy to consider."

"I'm not on council forever," he said. "I want to know that everything's above board."

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @jillcowan

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