On the evening of August 22, 2012, Costa Mesa city councilman Jim Righeimer heard a knock on his front door. It was a police officer—there’d been a 911 call, he said. Righeimer’s car was reportedly swerving, speeding, and running stop signs on his way home from a local bar. The officer asked Righeimer to step outside for a field sobriety test. Righeimer, it turned out, was as sober as the receipt for his two Diet Cokes that night. As the officer pulled away from the councilman’s house, he stopped a short distance down the street to talk to a man inside a parked Kia sedan. The councilman’s wife, Lene, growing suspicious, marched down the street demanding that the drivers identify themselves. The Kia driver, as a later lawsuit would attest, nearly hit her as he sped away.
The driver of the Kia was a private investigator employed by a law firm representing 120 police unions across California, and retained by the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association to do “candidate research” in the run-up to a contentious election where their pay and pensions were at stake. Since Righeimer was backing a proposal to trim police retiree benefits, he was in their sights. Yet the investigator’s retainer paid for more than simply digging up dirt; in fact, he had been tailing Righeimer, with the help of a GPS tracker installed—illegally—on the councilman’s car.
After five years of legal wrangling, the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association and its law firm settled in court this July with Righeimer, and other targeted councilmen in Costa Mesa, for more than $600,000, over 14 causes of action including assault, intimidation, and defamation.
What happened in Costa Mesa is a window into the increasingly nasty battles over the rising cost of retirement benefits for public employees in California. The League of California Cities recently reported that their members expect pension costs to rise by at least 50 percent over just the next half-decade. Cities employing police officers and firefighters will face the highest burdens: for every $100 spent in salary on current employees, they will soon have to shell out at least $54 to the state’s pension fund, CalPERS.
Police pension costs played a significant role in the bankruptcies of Vallejo and San Bernardino in 2008 and 2012, respectively, while larger cities such as San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento have recently undergone difficult pension negotiations to avoid similar budget woes. Police unions have used bareknuckle methods to fight pension reform, not just in Costa Mesa, but across California. When Stockton’s then-city manager Bob Deis moved to trim police ranks to stave off financial ruin in 2011, the police union erected a billboard with Deis’s phone number on it, and even bought his neighbor’s house, proceeding to renovate it noisily. (The city went bankrupt the next year, after which it managed to lay off part of its police force.)
These tactics draw on what’s widely called “the playbook.” It was written by the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association’s now-defunct law firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir. It advises unions to “focus on a city manager, councilperson, mayor, or police chief, and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim.” Clients were told to employ work slowdowns and sick-outs, to “storm city council,” and, above all, to convince the public that higher compensation and pension benefits ensured continued public safety.
While Costa Mesans may feel that they have closed an ugly chapter in this pension saga, their fiscal challenges are hardly over. When Righeimer and his colleagues began their reform fight in 2011, 99 city employees earned more than $200,000 a year in total compensation. That number has now leapt to 166 employees, of whom 93 percent are employed by the city’s fire or police departments. Costa Mesa’s highest-paid employee is its police chief, Robert Sharpknack, who pulls in nearly $400,000 a year.
The most recent city contract signed with the Costa Mesa Police Association in 2016 represented a pyrrhic victory for pension reformers. While it ensured that officers would eventually pay 14 percent of their salaries toward retirement—higher than the 5 percent contribution that they had simply stopped paying—it also granted officers a 9 percent pay increase over the span of 14 months. “I have my qualms with it, no question about it,” said Ralph Taboada, a member of the city’s Pension Oversight Committee, to the Los Angeles Times. There’s been no sign of a new agreement since the contract expired in June 2018.
Police patrol the “thin blue line” between order and disorder. Their service on that line of duty is not free, nor should it be, but when the unions representing those in uniform abuse their members’ privileged status to secure lucrative payouts, they risk crowding out essential public services—and even bankrupting cities. “Public officials should not be extorted over public benefits,” concluded Righeimer’s colleague, former Costa Mesa city councilman Steve Mensinger. That’s a lesson that many more cities in California, and beyond, may learn in the coming years.