Exclusive Interview with Jim Righeimer on Transparency in Government
Jim Righeimer was elected to the Costa Mesa City Council in 2010, where he currently serves as Mayor. In Costa Mesa, Jim has led the charge to shrink government and provide more transparency and efficiency to the Citizens of the City. Labor union leaders now say Costa Mesa is “Wisconsin in California.” Costa Mesa has been called a battleground for reform, and numerous national news publications have printed front page stories about the debate. As part of Righeimer’s program to increase transparency, Costa Mesa enacted one of the first “COIN” ordinances back in 2012. In this exclusive interview for UnionWatch, Righeimer explains COIN, and comments on prospects for similar transparency ordinances in other cities and counties.
(1) What does COIN stand for, and what other terms are used to describe this?
Civic Openness in Negotiation. It is also referred to as “open public employee negotiations.”
(2) Was Costa Mesa, where you currently serve as mayor, the first city you are aware of in California (or in Orange County) to adopt a COIN ordinance?
Costa Mesa was the first that we know of. It was created by Steve Mensinger, who is the mayor pro-tem for Costa Mesa.
(3) What inspired you guys to propose a COIN ordinance, who else was involved, and where did you go for guidance?
Steve is a businessman who does a lot of contract work, which in the business world is a very deliberate process. When he would talk with previous councilmembers about their votes, they would often have forgotten what they’d voted for. There was almost no process for how deals were reviewed and voted on. He decided something needed to change. He got guidance from attorneys at Leesberg Cassidy, the attorneys who currently handle a lot of negotiations for Costa Mesa and many other cities. Steve was the inspiration, but they had a lot of good ideas. For example, the union membership gets three weeks to review and vote on an agreement, but as soon as they approve it, the city has to vote within a week. That’s even in their bylaws.
(4) When was Costa Mesa’s COIN ordinance adopted?
It was adopted in September of 2012, and 2013 was the first year we’ve been using it in negotiations.
(5) What are the key provisions of Costa Mesa’s COIN ordinance?
The first one is the requirement for an outside auditor calculate what the existing contract costs, right down to each line item. That needs to be in front of the public 30 days before negotiations begin. Then after that, you have to hire a nonbiased, independent person to conduct the negotiations. Nobody who may be impacted by the negotiations, such as management employees of the city, can be the prime negotiator. Also, every time there is an offer or counter offer that’s been countered or rejected, the details are made public. Finally, once an agreement is made it has to be scored at least seven days before any council agenda, and it requires two readings in council meetings before the public before it can be approved – just like an ordinance.
(6) What tangible examples can you point to so far as a result of Costa Mesa’s COIN ordinance?
The first contract that has been reviewed under the new COIN process hasn’t been finalized. But before it is in front of the public, both parties are more reasonable in their offers and counteroffers because they know the public sees it. In the past, one side might ask for 50 items just to overwhelm the city. They don’t do that any more.
(7) The City of Fullerton has recently adopted a COIN ordinance. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of their version of a COIN ordinance compared to Costa Mesa’s?
Our city had already had a lot of confrontations and a lot of previous back room dealing, so when mayor pro-tem Mensinger first drafted this for us, he covered every contingency he could think of. Whether or not all those contingencies were needed is debatable. the most important thing to have in coin is a third party negotiator, a total accounting of all the costs of the contract, and to have it presented at at least two council meetings so the public has a chance to look at it before its voted on
(8) Orange County is considering adopting a COIN ordinance. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of their proposed version of a COIN ordinance compared to Costa Mesa’s?
They’ve removed the sunset provision, which was important to remove, and now it’s going back for another 2nd reading. There’s no reason to put a sunset on this type of law. If it needs to be modified or repealed later that can be done. As it is, there may not be any significant contract renewal negotiations coming up between now and 2017. So with a sunset provision, COIN can expire right before it’s needed! It is also really important to calculate and report the total contract costs, which Orange County’s COIN ordinance provides for. For example, the county recently voted to approve the deputy sheriff’s contract – they say they’re going to save 22.6 million over the two year term of the contract by increasing employee pension contributions. If they had already had COIN during these just completed negotiations, however, you would have seen that the county is giving them an offsetting raise and other benefits to pay for it.
(9) Over time, just how much benefit do you believe can come from tough COIN ordinances?
Well, a big benefit that could have occurred is that we would not have the pension problem we have today if we had had COIN back when the pension enhancements were being negotiated. COIN also slows down the ability of unions to come back in the future and repeal agreements they don’t like.
(10) Do you consider a COIN ordinance to be of bipartisan benefit, and if so, who opposes COIN ordinances?
For the honest brokers on both sides, transparency is not bad. The people who are against it are the people who like the system the way it was – they would just make political endorsements or attacks in order to get a vote where a politician would not have any other input. The guys who like the backroom deals don’t like COIN
(11) Do you predict that COIN ordinances will proliferate throughout Orange County and California’s cities and counties?
Huntington Beach looks like they are going to be the next city to put COIN on their agenda. Dave Sullivan, one of their councilmembers, has just brought that up to his staff to work on. I expect this process to become normal procedure, everywhere, within the next ten years. It’s going to be the new standard.