Saturday, June 4, 2011

Steve Lopez: Costa Mesa Is Being Captured by Extremists!

It's tough to keep track of all the stupid things LA Times columnist Steve Lopez writes; there was his April Fools' Joke of a Prop 13 editorial, or this mind-numbing piece on a Hummer-driving City Hall bureaucrat. But today's piece on the "political extremists" taking over the Orange County city of Costa Mesa was too awful to pass up. Apparently, if you take the time to interview a politician's enemies, you'll end up with a pretty negative picture of what they're doing; who knew?

Anarchy: Costa Mesa's future?
Lopez is not, of course, the only person to see ill omens in the city's approach to its budget deficit: the state's Democratic establishment spent a good part of last month's convention in Sacramento bashing Costa Mesa's leadership for what it perceived as an assault on organized labor. What makes Lopez's piece so bad is his unwillingness to think critically about the situation in Costa Mesa, as well as his apparent blindness to its larger context.

As far as critical thinking, Lopez spends his entire article interviewing one laid-off worker and two Republican rivals of Councilman Jim Righeimer, and concludes that their criticisms of Righeimer's approach to balancing the city's budget are spot on. It doesn't seem to occur to him that these people might have an axe to grind, or that they might not know what they're talking about. Granted, Righeimer has not wasted time since getting elected in November; under his guidance, 200 layoff notices have gone out as part of a plan to fire half the city's employees and replace them with private contractors. We'll note that Righeimer was elected because he promised vigorous action, so one can argue that he's only doing his job. But Lopez makes no effort to evaluate Righeimer's efforts on their own merits. He doesn't mention the budget hole that Costa Mesa is currently facing (it's $5 million), or the problem that its pension obligations are becoming (this year, it will spend $15 million of its $93 million budget on retiree benefits, a number expected to jump to $25 million next year). Yet it's impossible to weigh the wisdom of the cuts without this information. And given that neither of the county Republicans he interviews are currently part of the city government, they might not appreciate these numbers as much as Righeimer does. But Lopez doesn't care; in his view, "the answer is pension reform, not bashing employees or firing them en masse." Which is an entirely unfounded assertion, especially if you never define what you mean by "pension reform" or consider any of the math involved.

As far as context, it seems like Lopez is so eager to frame this as an "evil Orange County Republicans" story that he's not thinking about what's happening elsewhere in the state. While he says "no one's being pummeled like the clock punchers who toil for Costa Mesa", and takes at face value OC GOP chairman Scott Baugh's claim that the town is "ground zero" for the party's next great movement, the fact is that the same scenario is being repeated all over California, and not necessarily in traditionally Republican towns. One example, of course, is the heavily Democratic city of San Jose, where Mayor Chuck Reed has laid off over 600 workers and is threatening to forestall a tsunami of pension debt by either rewriting public employee contracts on a large scale or firing as much as 62% of the city's workforce. The tiny Madera County town of Chowchilla has cut a third of its public workforce in the past year and a half, and may still end up disincorporating. Closer to home for the LA Times, the city of Compton is now pursuing massive layoffs as a way of averting bankruptcy. And even that noted hub of libertarian extremism, Sacramento, has proposed a city budget imposing severe cuts to police and fire services and closing all but three community centers. We hate to break it to Lopez, but these kinds of personnel cuts are not at all unique to Costa Mesa.


Post a Comment