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Costa Mesa chief quits, blasts cuts

The city's top cop says the council majority made up a budget crisis to justify big cuts to workforce.

June 21, 2011|Catherine Saillant

Costa Mesa's police chief resigned abruptly Monday, leaving behind a blistering four-page memo that calls the City Council majority "unethical and immoral" and accuses them of manufacturing a fiscal crisis in order to slash the city's workforce by nearly half.

By day's end, Costa Mesa City Manager Tom Hatch announced he had already hired a replacement for Chief Steve Staveley and angrily condemned the departing chief's memo as "unprofessional" and "potentially libelous."

Staveley's departure marks a significant ratcheting up of tensions at City Hall, where municipal leaders have pledged to cut payroll and pension costs by laying off workers and contracting out municipal services. The city's hard-line approach has drawn national attention and is being watched by political and labor interests throughout the state. "Tea party" conservatives have called Costa Mesa "ground zero" for similar action in other cities.

Staveley, a law enforcement veteran of more than 30 years, said that in recent days he'd learned that the budget-cutting strategy being pushed by the council majority would mean up to 12 police officers would lose their jobs, and others would be demoted.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 24, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Costa Mesa: In the June 21 LATExtra section, an article about the resignation of Costa Mesa's police chief quoted Councilman Jim Righeimer but subsequently identified him as the mayor. He is the mayor pro tem. Gary Monahan is Costa Mesa's mayor. It was Righeimer who said, regarding a letter from the police chief, "It's probably the most unprofessional thing I've seen in my 30 years in business."

Staveley said he was unwilling to do that and believes the council is exaggerating the extent of the city's budget problems.

"They have pushed finance and the budget process around to get the kind of numbers that benefit their position," Staveley wrote. "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."

The council in mid-March ordered layoff notices for roughly half of the city's staff. Layoffs won't take place until September, but reaction in the rank and file has been immediate. A public works employee, Huy Pham, 29, jumped from the roof of City Hall the day the layoff notices were distributed. His death was deemed a suicide, but the council has requested further investigation.

Last month, Kim Bryant, a community development manager with the city for more than two decades, quit and took a similar post in neighboring Newport Beach. And at least five police officers have left the Costa Mesa Police Department for jobs in other cities, Staveley said in a brief phone interview with The Times.

He predicted more upheaval if the council continues its course.

"What they are doing is not fiscal conservatism, it is destruction of an institution," Staveley said. "It takes five years and millions of dollars to train that many police officers. That's not fiscally responsible. It's just stupid."

In his parting letter, Staveley called the council "weak" and "incompetent."

"The council majority plays fast and lose (sic) with the law and ethics and I am certain as individuals they will step over the line and it won't be long before the DA or more likely the AGs office comes knocking on the door."

Councilman Jim Righeimer, widely seen as the leader of the council's majority, called Staveley's memo "bizarre behavior."

"It's probably the most unprofessional thing I've seen in my 30 years in business," the mayor said.

Hatch said he had been considering replacing Staveley in recent days because they had been butting heads. Staveley's allegations, the city manager said, are unfounded.

"If he doesn't have any evidence, his allegations are simply libelous and I assume intended to inflame the Police Department and the community," Hatch said.

Hatch said the 3.5% cut to the department's budget is unfortunate but would not affect the safety of the community.

Though the budget is expected to be balanced for the coming year, the city is still spending more than it takes in and needs to make adjustments, the city manager said. Over the next several years, he said, pension costs will consume 25% of the budget.

Staveley said he owed it to "my troops" to tell the truth about what's happening in Costa Mesa.

"They act as if they are owners of the business that is the municipal government of the City of Costa Mesa," he said of the council in his resignation memo. "But they are not, they are merely trustees of these public assets both human and physical, and they fail in that role completely."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

Times staff writer John Canalis contributed to this report.

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