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Voters will decide whether or not Newport Beach will directly elect the mayor

By SARA HALL

Following a contentious three-hour discussion and a split City Council, it will be up to Newport Beach voters to decide if they want to directly elect their mayor in future elections. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, council voted 4-3 in support of putting the charter amendment on the ballot next June. Mayor Brad Avery and councilmembers Diane Dixon and Joy Brenner dissented. 

The voters should be in control of the decision, said Councilmember Noah Blom, who requested the item be placed on the agenda (on which there was a 7-0 consensus on October 12). 

“I want the power back to the people,” Blom said. “Let the people choose.”

If it fails at the ballot, so be it, he added.

Councilmember Will O’Neill, who headed up the “Elect Our Mayor” campaign for several months prior to Tuesday’s meeting, said it’s all about voter choice.

Currently, voters citywide elect one councilmember from each of the seven districts. Every year during the December meeting, there is a “changing of the guard,” when the council selects one of its members as its presiding officer, who has the title of mayor. They also select mayor pro tem at the same meeting.

A “horse trade” happens every year to see who becomes mayor, Blom commented. There is no contribution by the citizens when the mayoral decision is made. It’s something most residents don’t understand because they aren’t directly involved, he said. 

“I want you to know that this is out of your hands, who becomes mayor,” Blom said, “and I want to put it back into your hands.”

The mayor will still rely on city staff and councilmembers will still have a voice, he added. 

If voters approved the measure, the person elected mayor would serve a term of four years and would only be eligible to hold the office of mayor for two, four-year terms in the person’s lifetime. Also, the mayor would be ineligible to hold office as a councilmember for the term of office that immediately follows a term to which the person was elected mayor.

O’Neill, who terms out in 2024, noted during his comments that councilmember term limits will not change and won’t be “reset” for the current councilmembers. 

The change would also give the mayor the discretion to determine the order of business and set council meeting agendas; however, at any council meeting, three councilmembers would have the discretion to add an item to a future agenda. Currently, the city manager sets council agendas. 

Voters will decide council chambers

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Photo by Sara Hall

Newport Beach City Council chambers

He’s had people approach him with concerns about this, said Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon, noting some sections of the amendment he also wanted clarification on so he could be comfortable with the end result. 

“I can’t bring myself to vote against something that’s going to let the people decide,” Muldoon said. “At the end of the day though, I think the best way is to just let the voters decide.”

Before Blom requested the issue be placed on an agenda, O’Neill and other volunteers were tasked with gathering 9,000 Newport Beach voter signatures in order to get the measure placed on the ballot. 

O’Neill shared several supportive letters that made several of the same points as public speakers, including about responsibility, legitimacy and trust in the voters. 

More than 100 people attended the meeting, with many sharing their opinion on the matter during public comment. Speakers landed on both sides of the issue. 

Supporters said it would allow the mayor to have more pull in Sacramento and places trust in the citizens. It brings continuity and consistency, several said. 

One year isn’t long enough for the mayor to do anything meaningful under the current system, many pointed out. This would allow for better representation.

A key point of many speakers (and letter writers) who backed the proposal echoed Blom’s comments that it would put the trust and power back in the hands of the voters, and that the decision should be left to the residents to decide. 

Opponents argued that it gave too much power to whoever sits in the position of mayor, and that the current system is equitable for everyone on the dais. It could allow one person to hold the title for too long and sidestep term limits, several argued. 

It hasn’t been vetted or allowed to be discussed and scrutinized in a public forum. The potential problems it creates need to be worked out before spending taxpayer money on a special election, some argued. 

A common thread from people on both sides of the issue is the desire to have their voices heard, Dixon pointed out, a sentiment to which she strongly agrees. But everyone needs to be informed on what they are voting on, she added, and it’s their job, as councilmembers, to explain it through public discussion.

“The matter before us this evening has not been exposed to transparent public scrutiny, public debate, compromise or consensus building,” she said. “To throw this charter change out to the public without the due diligence on our part, as councilmembers, to explain the foundational elements of our council manager system of government and the ramifications of this proposed charter change is a disservice to our residents.”

They were asked to put the initiative on the ballot, but not discuss the content or potential flaws, Dixon said. There’s no background, analysis, or staff report. It’s a done deal if it gets on the ballot, there won’t be any opportunities for changes, she said. 

“I believe the voters deserve better,” Dixon said. 

The matter is “deceptively simple,” she added. But, if approved, it will substantially alter the city’s form of government and dramatically change the public citizen representation structure that has served Newport Beach for 70 years.

Also, it wasn’t the result of a groundswell of community support, she noted, it was brought up and written out by one person “with a keyboard and a robust social media network.” 

“This is a charter amendment by Instagram influencers,” Dixon said. 

There wasn’t a committee studying the idea or even a few residents asking about the process. Over the last decade that she’s been serving the city, including two terms as mayor, she never heard anyone say an elected mayor would run the city better. 

“The process tonight is on a fast track to the ballot,” Dixon said. “I would like to see our community engage in a robust discussion on how we should be governed.”

Dixon suggested an open, comprehensive exploration of the issue involving a broad cross-section of residents to ensure all residents, councilmembers included, are thoroughly informed on the proposed change and its potential consequences. 

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.