By Gus Ayer
Special to the Voice
A press release from the city of Costa Mesa announced that “The neighboring cities of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach will formally explore the viability of combining five municipal services to improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars” on (police) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) services; lifeguard services; jail services; animal control services; and police and fire dispatch services.
The press release announced that “Management Partners, Inc. has been contracted to prepare a study. Each city will pay a third of the $81,675 fee.”
Like much of the official news from Costa Mesa, it had a few problems.
None of the three city councils had actually approved a contract to spend money on this study, but the item will be on the Huntington Beach City Council agenda for Aug. 1, the Voice has learned.
So the public will have an opportunity to ask questions.
We don’t need to argue about the idea of combining services. We already have numerous successful models for sharing service between cities, and it is long established that some services are more effective when handled by private contractors. All 34 cities in Orange County are exploring better ways to deliver services at multiple levels and the collapse in revenues during the Great Recession has brought new urgency to the discussions.
We can even set aside the fact that Costa Mesa has been declared ground zero in a war between ideological extremists and the public employees unions, despite the fact that nobody in the city wanted to be on a bloody battleground.
Instead, let’s focus on a more significant question. Why would any city want to partner with Costa Mesa on a study right now? Sure, take their money to provide helicopter services, but trust them to provide accurate information and make a good decision? The question can be answered by focusing on four areas.
Lack of Senior Management
Costa Mesa has a management crisis. Of all the senior managers for the city, only one, the public works director, has been in place for more than six months. Their city manager retired in March and an assistant was promoted. Their long-time city attorney was replaced at the same time. A new police chief was just hired from a support staff position in Newport Beach. Their finance director, fire chief, assistant city manager, development services director, and human resources manager are all temps. Staff positions like fire marshal are vacant. The city is eliminating the position of emergency medical services coordinator and other key positions are empty.
Who at the Costa Mesa Fire Department will evaluate the needs for dispatch services?
Ineffectiveness of the City Council
In March, Costa Mesa announced that it would send preliminary layoff notices to hundreds of employees while they studied outsourcing 18 different departments.
Four months into the process, the city was smacked down by a judge and ordered into a court trial. More important, the council seriously underestimated the amount of work that would be involved in analyzing services and preparing requests for proposals to outsource services. Although they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys and consultants, they haven’t completed a single proposal request.
One study for a proposal to outsource Costa Mesa’s fire department to the Orange County Fire Authority cost $25,000 and took over a year to make. The majority members of the Costa Mesa City Council obviously hadn’t done their homework, had to ask more questions, and postponed any decision until they could get quotes from neighboring cities.
Much of the problem is related to the lack of experienced management and the huge number of requests that inexperienced Council Members Righeimer and Mensinger keep heaping onto city staff.
Does the Costa Mesa listen to its consultants?
Costa Mesa hired Management Partners to evaluate their police staffing. Their team of experts included the former Police Chief in Brea, Mike Messina, a veteran cop with more than 35 years in law enforcement to his credit. They produced a report that suggested a minimum number of 136 sworn officers. The council arbitrarily budgeted for 125 permanent positions, choosing to throw money at privately-owned alleys rather than to fund public safety.
In response, their acting police chief, Steve Staveley, resigned in disgust, sending a sharply worded letter.
It is safe to say that the council majority – does not know more about the subject of leadership, or leading police departments or serving as an elected than do I – and yet they do not listen, they do not understand and continue to blunder along in complete ignorance and incompetence….
I say that they (council majority) are destroying this police department with their incompetence and that means only one thing. The community building efforts that this department has invested in for many years will stop and the community will begin to deteriorate. No community can stand still and no community can grow and build itself without suitable police services. The cause of justice cannot flourish without those same services and this council has and continues to undermine this agency ability to do its job and for political and in some cases personal reasons – biases and even personal and individual animosity. As I have noted above, they attempt to meddle in routine department affairs for personal benefit and frankly several of them are rude and ill mannered and frequently boorish.
Ability to follow through on commitments
Even if Costa Mesa were able to provide accurate information and reach an agreement, would it be able to follow through? Let’s look at just one of the five areas – combining SWAT services. Will Costa Mesa be able to honor any commitments that it might make?
As its revenues plummeted during the Great Recession, Costa Mesa went from a contingent of 164 sworn officers to 140 sworn officers, and now its city council is shrinking that to 125. Costa Mesa is losing some of its best trained and most experienced officers, exactly the ones you might want on a SWAT team. Rank and file police officers, tired of the abuse, have been interviewing with other agencies. The process isn’t quick, but as the interviews and background checks are processed, Costa Mesa is now losing one police officer a week to other cities.
How will Costa Mesa play its part on a combined SWAT team if they can’t hold onto their experienced police officers?
For all these reasons, we need to ask the Huntington Beach City Council why it would ever want to partner with Costa Mesa.