A vibrant discussion on the role of government played out Wednesday night, as Newport Beach City Council candidates went head-to-head in the final Feet to the Fire debate of the election season.
At one end of the spectrum was Roy Englebrecht, who argued for cutting 15 percent of the city government’s workforce and implementing an immediate moratorium on city employee overtime.
The city of 87,000 has 773 employees, “more than most” cities in Orange County, said Englebrecht. But when pressed about where in the budget he would cut – such as staff for parks, libraries or police – he didn’t have specifics.
Englebrecht said he would leave it to department heads to decide who would be cut.
The other three candidates who attended were more interested in the status quo when it comes to city spending. None talked about major cuts – or expansions – in expenses.
“We are very efficient and effective,” Mayor Rush Hill said of the city government. “We’re non-partisan problem-solvers.” Hill is the only incumbent seeking re-election.
Candidate Mike Toerge suggested some savings could be achieved by sharing services with surrounding cities, like jails and police SWAT teams. At the same time, he didn’t argue for cutting city staff.
“The fundamental purpose of government is to provide the best services possible at the best prices possible,” said Toerge.
And candidate Tim Brown defended the recent expansion of the city’s much-used library as an important investment in the community.
The “most widely used facility in the city is the library,” said Brown. “That library is very, very important to our community.”
Eight candidates are running in the November election to fill four seats on the seven-member city council.
Missing from Wednesday night’s debate were three candidates who use Dave Ellis as a political consultant.
Debate organizer Barbara Venezia said the candidates – Scott Peotter, Marshall Duffield and Kevin Muldoon – had not directly declined the invitation.
“Nobody had the balls to call me, but I heard through the grapevine” they weren’t going to attend, said Venezia, who writes a column for the Daily Pilot.
Voice of OC’s editor-in-chief, Norberto Santana Jr., a member of the panel that questioned the candidates, said it’s part of running for office for a candidate to answer questions from news reporters and the public.
“I think it’s cowardly, first off, to not show up at a debate,” said Santana.
Political candidates increasingly are limiting themselves to speaking at events they control, he added.
If this continues, “we will eventually get to a civic life that’s very meaningless and hollow,” said Santana.
Wednesday night’s debate was the ninth Feet to the Fire forum since the series was started by Venezia and Daily Pilot editor John Canalis in 2010. The debates feature local journalists grilling candidates in a no-holds-barred format in front of a live audience.
The fourth journalist at the forum was Orange County Register columnist Jack Wu.
Much of the debate centered on Measure Y, a controversial ballot measure to allow the Irvine Company to build 550,000 feet of commercial space and 550 residences near Fashion Island instead of building in Newport Coast.
The issue has raised concerns about increasing traffic on already-congested roads like Pacific Coast Highway and MacArthur Blvd. Newport voters will decide on it in November.
Toerge, who supports the measure, acknowledged that under the development, “the peak hour trips do increase and do trigger peak hour impacts at Marguerite and Goldenrod” avenues.
At the same time, he said, the total number of cars reduced is 2,900 when compared to the Newport Coast development plan.
Englebrecht argued the Newport Coast plan still could be built.
“They can still build that hotel for 3,500 more cars down there,” said Englebrecht. He described arguments against it as a “cover-up…they are being so disingenuous.”
The mayor, meanwhile, said the Irvine Company would be relinquishing their right to build the Newport Coast project.
The proposed development near Fashion Island would create a walkable community that’s sorely needed in the city, he added.
Hill’s children want “to walk someplace,” said Hill. “We’re lacking, as a community, walkable communities.”