March Madness has already hit Costa Mesa.
In a dizzying, four-day span beginning Feb. 25, the council placed a last-minute item on its agenda that proposed sending pink slips to nearly half of the city's employees.
The only information given to the public about the item was a bare-bones city staff report that lacked any meaningful details, including the number of employees targeted for potential layoffs and the estimated cost savings.
And then the new council super-majority voted 4 to 1 to send out about 200 layoff notices that warn employees that they could lose their job in six months.
Wham bam, thank you, ma'am.
The council did virtually the same frantic dance steps to ram through a proposal on another 4-1 vote to explore allowing private paramedics — billed as a complement to city paramedics — to serve Costa Mesa residents.
This agenda item had flown so low under the radar that no one at the Costa Mesa Fire Department was consulted about it, and the city's emergency medical services coordinator — the experienced and well-respected Larry Grihalva — told the council as nicely as possible that he wondered why no one hadn't tapped his vast knowledge on the issue. He practically begged the council to use his expertise.
The Costa Mesa City Council seems to be operating on the philosophy that former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi used when pushing through the nation's health-care reform bill: "You have to pass the bill so that you can find out what's in it …"
Or there could be another explanation: The council members had been injected with some of Charlie Sheen's tiger blood, leading to highly aggressive behavior.
Look, privatizing government services will always be a difficult journey to embark upon, especially locally where residents interact with and are fond of their public workers.
For instance, in 1993, Newport Beach debated whether to lay off seven employees and hire a private company to trim the city's 20,000 trees, hoping to save $123,000. Many residents protested the then-radical step.
One city tree trimmer summed up the feeling at the time: "You have to have somebody who knows what they are doing if you need to cut a tree over a $1-million house in Corona del Mar. You won't find a better quality of work anywhere."
But guess what?
Since then, Newport's trees — and its residents — haven't noticed much of a difference, and the city saved some money. I imagine that would be the case for at least some of the services that the Costa Mesa council is exploring to privatize.
Besides — and here I'm agreeing with the super-majority and, I'm guessing, dissenting Councilwoman Wendy Leece — the city probably has no other option for balancing its budget in the long term than privatizing a sizeable chunk of city jobs — and ridding itself of skyrocketing pension liabilities it won't be able to meet in the not-too-distant future.
The quality of the services may or may not suffer, but Costa Mesa residents simply might not have a choice.
Quick side note: For those lobbying to save the city jobs, you'd do well to come up with a budget plan taking into account the looming pension bubble that will put Costa Mesa in good financial health five and 10 years from now, not just in 2011-12.
There's a pension tsunami coming that's threatening to wipe out government at all levels, and Costa Mesa needs to head for the high ground. But the council needs to do so in an orderly fashion without trampling over its constituents. Council members can't decide, using two-person committees, what's right for the residents and then turn the committees' views into city policy in just four days.
In the past, it's taken longer in Costa Mesa to decide how to paint its police cars.
Last week, Leece gave the council an opportunity for a do-over. She asked that the council review the two controversial items from its last meeting: whether to send pink slips to employees and whether to explore allowing private paramedics in Costa Mesa.