If the head negotiators from the Huntington Beach police and fire associations had had a podium of their own during Monday's night's Surf City Tea Party candidate forum, it might have turned into the free-for-all of the year.
Instead, the employee groups got a spirited defense from just one man at the head of the Huntington Beach Central Library's downstairs conference room. And a fighting Irishman, at that.
William "Billy" O'Connell was the only one of the five candidates in attendance to voice opposition to Measure Z, a November ballot measure that would repeal a property tax that helps to pay police and firefighter pensions. While O'Connell, like other candidates, strongly favored pension reform, he said it was underway already and that the measure, due to legally bound contracts, wouldn't make a difference.
After the forum, O'Connell, who recently got endorsements from both public safety associations, said he felt like the odd man out alongside Planning Commissioners Barbara Delgleize and Erik Peterson, incumbent Devin Dwyer and former Mayor Dave Sullivan.
"Tonight, our employees were a punching bag for the City Council candidates," he said. "Our employees did not have the chance to defend themselves."
O'Connell's denouncing of Measure Z, which drew scattered jeers from the audience, provided a rare moment of disagreement at the forum. The five candidates, who all proudly declared themselves Mitt Romney supporters, spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people who often interrupted speakers with applause.
Pension reform, whether through Measure Z or otherwise, was the dominant theme of the forum, as several candidates criticized what they viewed as a system that rewarded employees excessively at the expense of taxpayers.
"That's what my campaign is all about," Peterson said. "Once we get the finances in order, we can work on everything else we have to do in this city."
Candidates also defended the city's recent decision to legalize safe-and-sane fireworks on the Fourth of July as well as the plan to build a new senior center in Huntington Central Park. Each of the five participants made a short introductory speech and then answered handwritten questions submitted by audience members. Afterward, all the candidates stood at the head of the room and took spoken questions as well.
When the forum ended, Mayor Don Hansen took the microphone and made a speech in favor of Measure Z, which he helped place on the November ballot. He disputed claims that the measure would lead to city services being cut and, at one, point, recommended sardonically that residents who oppose the measure create personal bank accounts to continue funding city employees' pensions if it passes.
"This is not some twisted war on police," Hansen said. "It's not against the job. It's about the unsustainability of this system."