Monday, June 20, 2011

In Defense of the Costa Mesa City Council

The LA Times reported earlier today that interim Costa Mesa police chief Steve Staveley will resign from his post tomorrow in protest against the City Council's proposal to reduce staffing levels in order to balance its budget. Because this is the Times, they aren't passing on a chance to air any dirty laundry they can find: just into the news room is Staveley's accusation that the city council is manufacturing its budget crisis for political gain.

No, we did not see this in Costa Mesa.
Continuing on in the careful, nuanced reporting they've devoted to this story thus far, the Times gives us Staveley's screeching, rambling resignation letter and his accusation without bothering to check if any of it is true. (Trust us, if Staveley is half as unhinged as his letter makes him sound, the PD is better off with a new chief.) According to the letter, the Council has "pushed finance and the budget process around to get the kind of numbers that benefit their position. They have in essence lied as they create the appearance of crisis in order to appear as the white knight to a narrow band of political followers." In a separate phone interview, Staveley said that at least five officers have left the city's force for "more secure" jobs elsewhere. "What they are doing is not fiscal conservatism, it is destruction of an institution. It takes five years and millions of dollars to train that many police officers. That’s not fiscally responsible. It’s just stupid."

So, does Costa Mesa really have a financial crisis? Well, here's what we know: the city's existing contracts can't be modified, so abrogating them is the only way of getting out of bad deals; the hole in the city's budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $5 million; this year, the city will spend $15 million on retiree benefits, with the figure jumping to $25 million in the following year; Costa Mesa has ripped through $35 million in reserves in the last four years alone; and $17 million in its $93 million budget go to pay the compensation of just 85 employees in the police and fire departments. All of this sounds pretty bad to us, and unlike the Times, we're actually, you know, mentioning them. On the other hand, people like the Steves (Staveley and Lopez) insinuate that these numbers are a figment of the City Council's fevered imagination, yet produce exactly zero evidence to support their assertion. To these folks, they don't like the idea of laying off police officers, but they can't argue that using logic or math, so they conclude that there's a malign intent behind it. They also fail to explain why it would possibly make sense for the City Council to manufacture a crisis so as to fire public safety workers. Moreover, while we'll leave aside the question of whether the Times is reporting the story this way for its own political reasons, we'll note that conservatives have arguably done less to politicize the situation in Costa Mesa than liberals have: at their convention in late April, the state's Democrats spent the better part of a week bashing the city council. While it might make sense to make political hay by attacking the evil conservatives in Orange County, the momentum is more heavily against the pro-union folks than they realize. We hate to break it to Staveley, but San Jose and Sacramento aren't exactly hubs of extremist fiscal conservatism, and they're imposing far heavier cuts to their police forces than Costa Mesa is. It might offend his delicate sensibilities to hear this, but an awful lot of governments in California are flat f***ing broke.


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