Editor's note: This corrects what year Steve Mensinger left Bethany Management Group and his role in Pop Warner. This adds a situation former coworker Judy Enlow reported.
COSTA MESA — Shortly after his appointment in January to the City Council, Steve Mensinger became embroiled in the debate about how to solve Costa Mesa's budget problems.
Mensinger sided with a council majority in approving a plan to outsource 213 city jobs. The council's decision angered many community members and spawned the creation of Repair Costa Mesa, an activist group opposed to the outsourcing plan.
Mensinger may be a council newcomer, but the former city planning commissioner has been actively involved in youth sports in the community and as a sports booster at Estancia High School. He was the president of Pop Warner Football.
Many of his admirers say that he single-handedly revived youth football at Estancia.
Mensinger, 49, who has worked as a successful Orange County businessman, has widely been described as a friendly man who cares about his community.
Others say, however, his reputation as a pillar of the community was shaken after April 23, when the councilman allegedly got into an altercation with English teacher Joel Ruben Flores during the fourth annual Costa Mesa Community Run. Detractors say it wasn't the first time that Mensinger has shown a feistier side.
Flores claims that Mensinger "chest-bumped" him, that Mensinger bumped his shoulder with his chest, and that the councilman altogether physically intimidated him.
Mensinger does not deny that he exchanged words with Flores, but he denies that he made physical contact with the teacher who allegedly was criticizing him for endorsing the outsourcing plan. Mensinger said many people find him intimidating because of his size.
"I can't change that I'm 6 foot, 4 inches," said Mensinger. "I am who I am."
Putting down roots in O.C.
Mensinger began working as a driver in 1985 for real estate investor George Argyros. Mensinger had moved to Southern California from Stockton to attend USC, and decided that the Southland was for him.
In 1990, Mensinger married his wife, Robin, who works as a TV producer at the Walt Disney Co. They have two sons.
It didn't take Mensinger long to climb the corporate ranks, and 11 years after working for Argyros, he had risen to director of real estate.
In 1996, Mensinger began Cart Smart Services, a shopping cart service for major grocery chains. In 1999 he sold the business and returned to working with Argyros, accepting a position as a president of the residential apartment division overseeing the operations of all Argyros' residential properties.
In 2006, he became the president of a division of the Bethany Management Group. He worked there until 2007. In 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and many employees complained of a failure to get paid. That year he joined land-developing company SunCal as the president of the multifamily division, but was laid off as part of the downturn in the housing market.
As his sons began to get older and with his layoff from SunCal, Mensinger turned his attention toward the community. Unlike many Mesa Verde families who choose to go the private school route when it comes to high school, the Mensingers sent their oldest boy, Cole, now 16, to Estancia.
"If we're going to live in a community, we should be involved in a community," Mensinger said. "If we're not supporting a school, we deserve what we get."
Reputation as a bully
Mensinger's determination and his self-admitted stubborn personality earned him a reputation as a bully among some.
"Of course you hear that when you have convictions and opinions," Mensinger said. "I'm bullheaded. My wife will tell you that. When I hear no, I say why. … People tend to call you a bully when they disagree with you."
Judy Enlow, who worked with Mensinger for eight months at Arnel Leasing Apartments, remembers him as intimidating with an exchange student from Japan who was late paying rent for the first time.
"When I heard that, I was like, 'A leopard doesn't change his spots,'" Enlow said after about reading about his April 23 altercation with Joel Flores. "He’s such a big man; this student was so little. He kept saying 'Can't you call someone?!'"
Geoff West, a prominent local blogger who has criticized Mensinger's council appointment, said, "He's a very charismatic guy who's used to getting things done. He's not used to hearing 'no.'"
West added: "He tends to push people around."
Mensinger was no stranger to controversy before joining the council, either. In 2006, an Orange County sheriff's report was filed claiming that Mensinger misrepresented himself as a sheriff's deputy at John Wayne Airport, and he threatened to get an Alaska Airlines employee fired, according to a story from the Los Angeles Times that year.
Mensinger said that it was inaccurately reported and that no action was taken against him.
He was also listed as a defendant among others in a sexual harassment suit against Arnel Management Co. and Argyros.
"Any cases that relate to the past were settled favorably," Mensinger said, adding that he was only part of legal cases because of his position as president.
Despite his past, there are many others who speak highly of Mensinger as a man who has the willpower and strength to get things done.
"He's a great guy. He's a doer. That is important when you're on a board," said Costa Mesa United President Gordon Bowley. "I have not run into any bullying."
Bowley said Flores' police report didn't characterize Mensinger.
"[His] expectations of people working with him are high," Bowley said. "He gets things done. When that doesn't get done, it doesn't go well with him."
Learning about politics on the sidelines
Although Mensinger has only been involved with the council for four months after his now-controversial appointment (rather than a direct election), he said that he first honed his political skills through his experiences with parents on football game nights. They would approach him asking why their child didn't get as much game time as others.
This, Mensinger said, is where he learned about people.
"When you get into sports, you get into politics," he said.
Among the issues Mensinger said he wants to tackle while on the council is Costa Mesa's aging infrastructure.
In addition, he said things like improved safety, recreation and more activities help the city draw in young people and young families. Mensinger said he believes those families can bring new businesses and vitality to the city.
"If I was to choose a team, I'd want him on my team," Bowley said.