Commentary: Are We In Ancient Rome or Costa Mesa?

by Tom Egan.  This appeared in the March 18, 2013 edition of the Daily Pilot.

Once, when I was very young, I saw a scary political cartoon from the previous century depicting an arena in ancient Rome. Bodies litter the floor of the arena, and a bloodthirsty tiger bares long fangs as he mauls a slender woman dressed in a white robe. The tiger stares intently at the reader, obviously the next victim. The caption reads, “What are you going to do about it?” The message: The tiger is powerful and no one can stop him.

As an adult, I learned that the tiger in that cartoon symbolized raw political power and the mauled woman in white was Lady Columbia, symbolizing the Republic.

In contemplating Costa Mesa government, as it embarks on another potentially turbulent two-year voyage, I often think of that cartoon.

In the two years the current City Council majority has been in control, it has ignored the people’s input, with few exceptions. This council majority appears to be less obligated to “We the People,” who elected them, than to outsiders.

For example, Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Dayton (representing Associated Builders and Contractors) was allowed to talk at a council meeting longer than three Costa Mesans together.  Similarly, out-of-town partisan politician Scott Baugh, the Orange County Republican Party chairman, crowed that Costa Mesa was “ground zero” for “this revolution.”

The council majority, against expert citizens’ advice, approved several expensive contracts, such as the no-limit one with San Francisco-based law firm Jones Day, and its $495-an-hour attorneys.4

At the council’s direction, Jones Day fought a legal battle that was widely viewed as lost before it even began. As expected, it lost, and lost again on appeal. This one has cost taxpayers more than $1 million and counting. Several people from that firm have donated significant amounts to a council member’s campaign fund.

And consider the peculiar contract given to GrowthPort Partners Inc., a human-resources consulting firm. Disregarding common business sense, the majority agreed to a contract that required the city to pay GrowthPort’s monthly invoices in advance, rather than after the service had been rendered, which is the norm. And, inexplicably, GrowthPort was not penalized for failing to deliver the contracted-for final report.

Finally, the council majority floated a city charter that would have enabled corruption.  It would have granted this and all future councils immense power to give municipal contracts (those paid with city money only) to anybody, in any amount, for any work, without any competitive bidding.

Making matters worse, the majority members insisted on rushing their charter to a vote with hardly a change. They did this even though the public had urged caution and had recommended more than 100 substantive changes. The voters last November decisively rejected this flawed charter.

The mayor has noted an intention to appoint a committee of citizens this time, and try again. However, this is unlikely to yield a better charter. Any committee that the council appoints will naturally be biased in its favor, and the council majority can change or ignore anything a council-appointed committee recommends.

Citizens’ fraught experience with this council proves that an acceptable charter for Costa Mesa can be created only by the state-preferred method: a commission of 15 citizens specially elected by the voters.   A reassuring part of this method is that the state ensures that the people have ultimate authority over their city government; California law requires a city council to put any proposal written by a charter commission on the ballot without change.

Based on the council majority’s questionable track record, “We the People” would be wise to insist that the council members change their ways. They must put residents first and govern responsibly. If they don’t, we will need to stand together again and oppose them in order to preserve our corner of the republic and avoid the fate of Lady Columbia.