COIN Doesn’t Solve Transparency Problem

by Greg Ridge, CM4RG Member

The Costa Mesa City Council proved to me once again why they can’t be trusted.

Faced with an opportunity Tuesday night to adopt meaningful reforms that would shine a light on how lobbyists, private contractors and labor unions alike can influence politicians on the council, they chose to advance their own political agenda instead, leaving residents in the dark. It’s time we took transparency to a real level.

Once again, the council rejected reforms that would result in true transparency. What the council did adopt was a so-called Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) ordinance, one councilman’s attempt to create a political platform for his current candidacy. But the message they sent was loud and clear: The council majority does not want you, the taxpayer who foots the bill, to know how lobbyists, campaign contributors and private contractors influence the decisions the council makes about your community.

Councilman Steve Mensinger claims his COIN ordinance will bring transparency to City Hall. But COIN is not what it seems. In reality, it targets only a single group — city employees — and fails to focus any attention at all on those interests that are most susceptible to abuse by the politicians on the council.

Under COIN, the politicians won’t have to tell the public which lobbyists and campaign contributors attempt to influence council decisions on expensive contracts.

Under COIN, the politicians who make up the council majority will never have to tell the public who helped them write their charter scheme behind closed doors, or who encouraged them to refuse repeated requests from the community to have a seat at the table and to hold more meetings to ensure that the charter would be crafted through a deliberative process.

Under COIN, when Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer votes to approve a contract with a street sweeping company, he still won’t have to tell the public that he accepted campaign contributions from that company before he casts his vote.

Under COIN, nobody will know how the law firm Jones Day got a $495 per hour, no-bid contract to provide unlimited legal services.

Under COIN, the politicians will never have to tell the public who they talked with before hiring a $3,000-a-week public relations spokesman, without going out to bid.

What Mensinger also won’t tell you is that last year he voted against an “ex parte” proposal that would have resulted in real reform and real transparency. That proposal by Councilwoman Wendy Leece would have protected Costa Mesa residents from the corruption and pay to play practices we see in corrupt and fiscally challenged charter cities across the state, such as Bell, Stockton and Vallejo, to name just a few.

But transparency isn’t the real objective of Mensinger and his council cabal. It’s just not how they operate. The COIN ordinance appeared suddenly on a council agenda, with no prior notice other than that required by law. Before COIN was introduced, the councilman failed to seek any input from the community.

Then he ignored dozens of residents who spoke up during two separate council meetings and who urged him to expand his plan. He ignored Costa Mesa city employees, who expressed support for a wider and more comprehensive transparency initiative that would regulate negotiations with private contractors, lobbyists and labor groups alike. He ignored Leece, who bravely championed real transparency.

The councilman didn’t listen, just like he didn’t listen when the public asked the council to hold more meetings and to have more input regarding the scheme to increase politicians’ power by turning Costa Mesa into a charter city. With COIN, just like Measure V, the council prefers to do its own business behind closed doors.

Transparency should be applied evenly and fairly, and I hope Leece is successful in her efforts to bring back her proposed lobby reforms, which were voted down by the council majority last year and rejected again when she sought to make them part of the COIN ordinance.

I also hope news outlets like the Daily Pilot pay closer attention to what’s really going on in Costa Mesa so their readers are fully informed. For example, last year when Leece proposed transparency and lobby reforms, she sent out a press release and put it on the council agenda.

But the Daily Pilot ignored it. Yet when Mensinger, who is a part of the city’s sophisticated political machine, proposed an ordinance that was not nearly as comprehensive, the Pilot published several one-sided stories, complete with quotes from the politicians responsible for creating this smoke screen. True transparency must be comprehensive, not selective. Anything less than true transparency is simply political posturing.

That’s a lesson that would benefit both the council majority and the Daily Pilot.

This commentary appeared in the Daily Pilot on Friday, September 7