Costa Mesa police chief resigns in protest

COSTA MESA — Publicly opposing a proposal to reduce the size of the city's Police Department, interim Police Chief Steve Staveley resigned in protest Monday.

In an interview with the Daily Pilot and a memo widely circulated at City Hall, Staveley took strong parting shots, questioning the ethics, integrity and legality of some of the decisions made by the City Council majority.

In turn, the city's chief executive defended the proposals as ethical and called the resigning chief's statements "simply libelous."

Staveley, a retired law enforcement veteran, stepped in as the fill-in chief March 16. He was to oversee the department while the city searched for a permanent police chief.

"There's a point in time where I reached an ethical dilemma: stay and take their money and be quiet about the foolish council decision-making, or reject their money and call them on it," Staveley told the Pilot in reference to a decision to trim the police force from 139 officers to 131.

Calling them "foolhardy," Staveley challenged the notion of the council majority that the cuts were necessary to make the budget work. Costa Mesa is in the middle of an ideological battle with four council members who claim there is a budget crisis, and a fifth council member and employee associations saying the problems are overstated.

"I've been doing this for a very long time and I can read a budget," Staveley said. "I am unable to sit there and accept checks for looking pretty. I can't do it. If we can't move the organization forward, that's the way it is."

City Chief Executive Tom Hatch said the city's fiscal problems are not overstated.

"Costa Mesa's financial numbers are simple and alarming," he said in a statement, adding that the city spends much more than it takes in and has used more than $33 million of its reserves in the past three years.

While Hatch tried to stay away from cutting public safety, he said there's not much he can do but make some cuts to the department. The city plans to cut 3.5% from the CMPD budget.

The city and a consultant have come up with a plan to maintain patrol hours, he said.

Costa Mesa proposes increasing the number of non-sworn employees for support services and changing their schedule to five days a week, which would be similar to the work schedule in the private sector, Hatch said.

"In some areas, the level of service won't be the same for residents and the business community, but unfortunately, this is what we can afford…," Hatch said in the prepared statement. "I live here with my wife and daughters. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize their safety."

Hatch named former La Habra Police Chief Dennis Kies as the interim chief. Kies is expected to serve for a few weeks before Hatch names a permanent chief.

In the letter to the Police Department's staff, Staveley listed the five-days-a-week schedule and the cuts proposed by the council majority as among the reasons for his departure.

"If you let council people meddle in such small matters, is it long before they tell us who we can cite, or arrest, or require us to release or whose burg gets investigated? I think not," he said in his letter. "It is simply a step to corruption and I won't play in that arena."

In addition, Staveley wrote, "The council majority plays fast and loose with the law and ethics, and I am certain as individuals they will step over the line and it won't be long before the [district attorney's office] or more likely the [attorney general's] office comes knocking on the door."

Hatch said that Staveley's allegations of corruption are baseless.

"If he doesn't have any evidence, his allegations are simply libelous, and I assume intended to inflame the Police Department and the community," Hatch said.

The Orange County Employees Assn., which opposes the proposed reductions atCosta Mesa City Hall and has been engaged in a war of words with the council majority, issued a statement standing by Staveley and calling for the state's attorney general to investigate.

"As representatives ofCosta Mesa's city workers, it is with deep concern we note the resignation of Costa Mesa's top law enforcement official, Costa Mesa Police Chief Steve Staveley," OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir wrote. "The seriousness of these charges and the potential harm to the city require the utmost attention.

"There have been numerous media reports pointing out that this is the top priority for the Orange County GOP and its elected officials. In light of those facts, we call today for Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate the charges made in Costa Mesa Police Chief Steve Staveley's resignation letter."

Orange County Republican leaders have said they support the efforts of the council majority in Costa Mesa but are not behind or financing them.

The last permanent police chief, Chris Shawkey, resigned in March after being placed on administrative leave. Shawkey did not give a reason for his departure, but he had been under fire for travel vouchers indicating he may have expensed mileage for personal trips to Arizona, where he lived prior to accepting the job in CostaMesa.