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Opponents and supporters speak up about “Elect Our Mayor” measure

By SARA HALL

As election day draws nearer, campaigners on both side of the controversial “Elect Our Mayor” issue are speaking up about the hottest topic on the local ballot.

Community group Speak Up Newport hosted a meeting Wednesday (May 11) featuring presenters on each side of Measure B, which is on the June 7 ballot for Newport Beach voters. Mayor Pro Tem Noah Blom spoke in support of the proposal, while longtime resident and local lawyer Walter Stahr spoke against the measure.

More than 60 people attended the meeting in person in the community room at the NB Civic Center and about 130 people watched it streaming online, on TV, or via Zoom.

Currently, voters citywide elect one councilmember from each of the seven districts. Every year during the single 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.

If voters approve 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.

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.

Following a contentious three-hour discussion on October 26, council voted 4-3 in support of putting the charter amendment on the June ballot. Councilmembers Brad Avery, Diane Dixon and Joy Brenner dissented. 

Prior to the October 26 meeting, Councilmember Will O’Neill headed up the “Elect Our Mayor” campaign for several months. He and other volunteers were tasked with gathering thousands of Newport Beach voter signatures in order to get the measure placed on the ballot. 

But before the process was completed, on October 12 Blom requested the proposed measure be placed on a council agenda for discussion and possible action. In a 7-0 consensus, the council agreed to agendize the issue for a future meeting (October 26), at which time a majority of the council opted to forward the proposal to the June 7 election (bypassing the need for a petition with voter signatures). 

To his knowledge, there was no discussion in the community about wanting direct election of the mayor until the petition started to circulate, Stahr noted at the Speak Up meeting this week. It was never mentioned during the recent council candidate campaigns either, he added. 

It’s not like various issues in the city’s history that develop out of a discussion here or there in the community and eventually evolves into a proposal pitched to the council, he said, it didn’t naturally come about.

“This is not an issue that bubbled up from the people,” Stahr said. “This is an issue that sort of emerged full blown in the form of petitions that were circulated briefly and then voted by city council [to move forward to an election].”

By making it an A-1 item (the city policy that allows councilmembers to ask for an item to be placed on a future agenda) he did bring it up for public discussion, Blom countered. 

“This is a question that goes back to the people. This didn’t come to me. I want the people to vote,” Blom said. “My whole goal here is to hear what Newport has to say. I’m not afraid of the outcome, yes or no, that’s wonderful. That means the people got to choose, not me. I am not here to make the decisions, I’m here to listen to the constituents that got us here.”

Opponents and supporters city hall

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Photo by Sara Hall

Newport Beach City Hall

In October and again this week, Blom emphasized that it’s about letting the people decide. 

“Give the voice back to the people, because I trust them,” Blom said. “And if they make a decision that we don’t like, then you get to make another choice again and again and again continuously.”

There are a lot of citizens that are active in city matters, many in the audience at the Speak Up Newport meeting, but the majority of residents aren’t involved at that level, Blom pointed out. 

“Their voice gets muted out for who gets to lead the city,” he said. 

The people should – and do already – choose who leads them, said Stahr, echoing Blom’s point. 

“The people choose seven members of the city council, those are the leaders of Newport Beach,” he said. 

To become the mayor of Newport Beach, the person had to have been first elected to city council by the voters, he emphasized. Each eventual mayor was already elected by the people.

The people voted in aren’t necessarily “bad,” said Blom, answering a question from the audience, but the process can be. It can create a situation where some people might be vying for their own success or ambitions in order to get a title. They might make some negotiations to get there, which isn’t what he signed up for, he said. 

“I signed up to be a representative of the community, I didn’t sign up to be part of political wheeling and dealing so that somebody gets to wear the crown for a year and then pass it on to the next person,” Blom said. 

There are backroom deals in politics to make these decisions, he said. 

“There are elements at play continuously,” he added. 

Although Stahr strongly opposed that depiction. Councilmembers are elected to make important decisions, including which one among them will serve as mayor each year.

“It’s not illegitimate or shady and it doesn’t happen in a backroom, that’s just wrong,” Stahr said. “It happens in a public meeting.” 

Residents can attend the meeting and comment, he noted. 

A discussion between two councilmembers may happen beforehand, usually to determine a person’s interest in serving as mayor or mayor pro tem. It happened as recently as 2020 when O’Neill asked Avery about transitioning during COVID (which O’Neill mentioned during his comments on the “election of mayor” item at the Dec. 8, 2020, meeting). That prior discussion led O’Neill to feel confident that Avery knows the job and responsibilities, and would “rise to the occasion.”

For Blom, after he was elected to the council in 2020, his first vote on the dais was for the next mayor. Blom was the sole dissenting vote in the 6-1 decision at the December 2020 meeting to select Avery as the city’s next mayor.

“My very first vote on City Council was one of the most disturbing that I had,” Blom said at the SUN meeting this week. “The opposition wasn’t necessarily for the person that we were choosing, it was for the process. Because I saw the way that process worked and it was probably one of the most disheartening things I’ve seen. Because it wasn’t a vote of the people. It wasn’t looking around for the best [person] for that role, it was about turn and tradition.”

That shouldn’t be why a person leads the city, he added. It shouldn’t be for power or so someone can say they got to be mayor, it should be because they love the city, Blom said.

Although at the time, Blom explained the sole dissenting vote and his nomination of O’Neill for mayor was because O’Neill had done an amazing job during the pandemic in 2020 and that they shouldn’t change it since the city was doing so well. 

O’Neill had “put forth the ideals of Newport,” Blom said at the December 2020 meeting. He was the “right choice” to keep the city strong for the next year, he added. 

“Newport Beach emphatically has asked me from all angles and all levels for this,” Blom said at the meeting, reiterating some of the praise he heard from residents about O’Neill. They need to represent and act on the views of the residents, he said, not their own opinions or aspirations, Blom said.

Opponents and supporters mayors

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Photo by Ed Olen

Former Newport Beach mayors at the 2021 Mayor’s Reception

At that same December 2020 meeting, O’Neill mentioned that some residents had reached out and supported his work as mayor. He also noted that it can be confusing that they rotate the mayoral position among themselves after being elected to the council. 

“It’s a tradition that is held, actually, in most cities around Orange County,” O’Neill said at the 2020 meeting. 

Most years, the positions of mayor and mayor pro tem are “largely ceremonial,” O’Neill said, agreeing with a public comment, but 2020 and 2021 weren’t like most years. There were very few actual ceremonies, O’Neill pointed out, and the role was a “bit beyond” that capacity during those years. 

O’Neill also commented that he supported Avery as the city’s next mayor.

In another unusual “changing of the guard” meeting, the position for second in command of mayor pro tem was contested and a bit contentious during the 2021 transition. At the Dec. 14, 2021, meeting, the vote was split 4-3 between councilmembers Blom and Brenner. Ultimately, the majority of Blom, O’Neill, Kevin Muldoon and Marshall “Duffy” Duffield backed Blom for the spot.

A number of residents passionately spoke out in support of Brenner for the position. Public speakers noted Brenner has been on council since 2018, has been a longtime community advocate and Corona del Mar resident, has done a great job and is qualified for the role. Some also mentioned that her district in CdM has not been represented by the mayor or mayor pro tem since 2012, essentially muting those residents’ voices. 

Dixon also noted that she’d like to see the council continue their tradition recognizing councilmembers by seniority in terms of years of public service. 

There doesn’t appear to be any change in how the mayor pro tem is selected mentioned in the text of the measure. 

“The proponents of Measure B say that this is a simple issue, but the text of measure B…runs for three printed pages with some fine print,” Stahr said this week at the SUN meeting “If Measure B passes, it’s that text that’s going to matter.”

There are even sections of the measure he doesn’t understand and could be argued in different ways, he added. 

“I am afraid when I look at the fine print,” Stahr said, responding to Blom’s comment about opposition based on fear. “I am concerned that if we adopt this measure that some of that fine print is going to come back – maybe not in a year, maybe in 10 years – and cause problems that we don’t need.”

A few key issues discussed at the SUN meeting this week include: Term limits; power of the mayor, councilmembers and city manager; and setting the agenda.

Currently, the charter says that the mayor serves at the pleasure of city council. By tradition, that term is typically one year, Stahr said, but there’s nothing in the charter that limits it to that timeframe. If the mayor is doing a good job, a majority of the council can vote to extend it for another year. If not, they can choose a new mayor when that year is up, Stahr said.

If Measure B passes, the term of the mayor will be four years (which a person can serve twice).

They had a choice when they drafted this measure, Stahr commented. They could have followed the approach of several other local cities with elected mayors with a two-year term, or, in another approach followed by other cities, set a term limit that combines the terms served on city council with the terms served as mayor (a combined maximum of eight years on council and/or as mayor, for example).

“But they didn’t do that,” he said. 

It seems that a person could complete eight years on city council, then be elected as mayor for a term of four years, and then possibly get re-elected as mayor for another four years, Stahr predicted, which would result in one person serving 16 years.

Currently, if the mayor were to resign or die, the remaining members would select a fellow member of the council to serve as mayor for the remainder of the year. Under Measure B, if that were to happen, a special election would need to be held unless it coincides with an already scheduled election, which are expensive and risky, Stahr said. 

Referencing the concern over term limits for the new mayoral position, Blom noted that past city managers have held their position for a decade or more. The new mayor role would be limited to four years and voters can decide to re-elect that person for a second term of four years or vote someone else in, he explained. 

“That’s an interesting thought to me, that it steals power away from our city manager,” Blom said. 

He respects current City Manager Grace Leung, Blom said, commending her talent and experience. 

“But in any great company, you also have a board of directors and you have a chairman of the board,” he added. “A powerful CEO is still great, running this city is a privilege, it’s not a problem.”

“So those arguments fall flat to me,” he added.

Addressing the counterpoint that “power is being stolen,” Blom questioned who currently held the power and how that would change if the measure passes. 

“Who has it now? All the councilmembers?” Blom asked. “I have the power to put something on the agenda, that’s why this ballot measure is here.” 

That power won’t be abandoned if the measure gets approved, councilmembers will still have the power to put items on the agenda (with the concurrence of at least three councilmembers), Blom said. 

“The difference is, right now, is that the city manager has the power to set the agenda,” Blom said. 

Setting the agenda has been a contentious point with Measure B that has been used in the opposing campaign, he said. 

“The agenda. That scary document that says what we’re going do at a meeting,” Blom joked. 

It’s just the guidelines for the meeting, he said, the city manager will still be part of that, they will still work on contracts and department heads will still discuss important issues at study sessions. 

“The difference is that there’s someone now that would be accountable to all of you, continuously,” Blom said. That “is the power that we want. We want to give it back, we don’t want it in the bureaucracy. We don’t want it in this backroom trading.”

The agenda is what they follow to move forward, Blom said. Any concerned citizen can rally an opinion and eventually get an item on the agenda. They’ll study it, discuss it and potentially take action. That’s what the system is about, he said. 

“This doesn’t give one person power to create the schedule,” Blom said. “The schedule is not power.”

Although there’s more than that to what setting the agenda actually means, Stahr noted. 

The mayor currently doesn’t typically have any special power other than to run the meeting.

“Under the language of Measure B the mayor will have sole charge of the city’s agenda with one poorly drafted exception,” Stahr said.

Quoting the measure text, Stahr read: “With the concurrence of at least three members of the city council at any public meeting, an item may be added to a future city council agenda.”

“May” is an interesting word, he noted.

“Does that mean that it may not if the mayor says ‘I don’t want it?’ I’m not sure,” Stahr said. “If I had drafted it, I would have used the word ‘shall.’”

And the word “future” is also vague, he added. 

“What if the mayor says ‘Yeah, it will go on the agenda – next year.’ Is the mayor violating the language of the charter? I’m not sure,” Stahr said. 

Even more importantly is the informal power that the mayor will have, Stahr said. 

“The mayor is going to have allies on the council because of the mayor’s power to raise funds and those allies are going to give the mayor the votes that he needs to have yet more power,” Stahr said. 

Considering the list of the donors to Measure B, about half come from addresses outside of Newport Beach, even out of state, Stahr noted. 

“Why are these people from outside of Newport Beach donating money to change our city charter?” Stahr asked. “I think it’s pretty clear. They expect the mayor to be powerful and they hope the mayor is going to use that power to help them.”

This is evident in the postcard mailed out to voters supporting the measure, said Stahr, holding up a large glossy mailer. On one side a sketch shows the mayor directly connected to the voters.

“The city council has disappeared,” Stahr said. Even if proponents argue that council still exists, “sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words. What they’re looking for is a system in which the mayor is so important and so powerful that the city councilmembers are irrelevant.”

Blom noted that a lot of the out-of-town donors are business addresses for local residents.

“Our mayor right now is ceremonial and they don’t have a lot of that ability to make real change,” Blom said. 

An elected mayor could make a difference and in four years, if the people don’t like the changes made, they can vote again, he noted. 

This isn’t a ceremonial position, this isn’t a ceremonial city, Blom said. Newport Beach is a great city and the jewel of the West Coast, he commented, and that will be proven over the next 100 years. 

“We’ll see it grow in just the right way, but right now we can’t get bogged down with in the semantics of the contract,” Blom said. “The question really sits out there: Should the people vote for who leads us?...The real question is: Do we not like the contract that was put forth for how they lead?”

Most people probably don’t know who the current mayor is, Blom said, they might think of a former mayor or another councilmember. 

“That tells me that we don’t have the congruency in the city that we need for that figurehead,” Blom said, “for that person to lead us in the direction that the community wants.”

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