The Newport Beach City Council Tuesday cancelled a closed session to discuss the process for hiring a new city manager after two residents claimed the move violates state transparency laws and the City Clerk recommended the council call off the closed meeting.

The action came amid confusion among residents, and even some city workers and members of the council itself, trying to understand the hiring process the city is following to replace City Manager Dave Kiff.

The council voted 5-2 to contract with the Rancho Mirage-based Roberts Consulting group to find a new city manager. But before a council majority agreed on contracting with the Roberts Consulting group, some members unsuccessfully tried to get the council to postpone using a consultant, create a special committee to handle the issue or even restart the entire process.

“We are not ready to start this process,” Councilwoman Diane Dixon said. “The first step is going to identify what it is we’re looking for in the next city manager … we as a council need to create that, or edit or amend the current job description.”

Dixon made a motion to restart the process and allow City Clerk Leilani Brown, who’s been tasked with finding a recruitment firm to help look for a new city manager, seek advice from the city’s Human Resources department. Dixon said there’s been confusion over who Brown can speak with for guidance.

“In my estimation, there’s confusion at the staff level because there’s a sense that they cannot talk to anybody, the City Clerk’s office cannot talk to the Human Resources Department to figure out how to conduct a search process,” she said.  

However, before Dixon’s motion went to a vote, Councilman Kevin Muldoon made a substitute motion to go with the Roberts Consulting Group.

Muldoon’s motion includes provisions that Brown can speak with human resources to get advice on the search process. Dixon and Councilman Jeff Herdman dissented.

Some residents expressed concerns about the process during the public comment period.

“Rather than postponing it, I think you may want to restart this process,” resident Jim Mosher said.  

Mosher is one the residents that brought up the transparency law concerns if the council went ahead and discussed the hiring process in closed session. He said he also didn’t understand why Brown, and not the Human Resources Department, is handling the hiring process.

“This all, seems to me, highly irregular,” Mosher said.

Susan Skinner is the other resident who emailed her concerns to City Attorney Aaron Harp about the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s transparency law that regulates local governments. She said the Human Resources Department should handle it.

“The Human Resources Department is the best equipped department to find the new city manager,” Skinner told the council.

She also said the council could directly influence Brown during the hiring process.

“The City Clerk serves as an at-will employee and only keeps her job as long as she keep you happy,” Skinner said.

During a quick interview after the meeting, Councilman Scott Peotter explained why the City Clerk’s office is handling the process.

“There’s only three employees that work directly for the council,” the City Attorney, the City Clerk and the City Manager, Peotter said. “And HR (human resources) works for the city manager, so we thought it would be best to take it out of that scenario … of having HR looking for their own boss.”

Peotter compared it to the process corporations use to find a new CEO.

“A corporation does not use HR to find a new CEO, the board finds a new CEO,” he said. “HR works for the CEO and to have HR find their own boss is kind of weird.”

“We’re trying to get the City Clerk off the hook, because the search firm will really now be in the lead,” Peotter said.  

Skinner, along with other residents, previously said the council is trying to force Kiff out of his position.

Kiff, who signed a two-year employment contract with the city in 2017, has denied those allegations, according to an LA Times article published in late March. He has announced he will retire late this year. He remained silent throughout Tuesday’s discussion and vote.

Skinner also claimed council members were maneuvering to hire Dana Point City Manager Mark Denny, who is the former county chief operating officer.

“So now we get to pick our next city manager and the jungle drum says you are planning on putting in Mark Denny,” Skinner said during public comment.

Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neil said it’s not his intent.

“I’ve never met or spoken to Mark Denny. I wouldn’t know the first thing about hiring someone I have not met or spoken to. My intent is to let the search firm do their job and work with them,” O’Neil said in a Wednesday phone call.

Peotter said the Denny rumors could have started when he mentioned Denny as a possible replacement for the retired city utilities director to help with issues involving the harbor.

”All U did was suggest that our city manager look into somebody like Mark Denny who can come in an help…and I suggested that Mr. Kiff meet with him,” Peotter said in a Wednesday phone call. “Mr.Kiff decided he wasn’t fit to hire and that was the end of the discussion.”

Peotter said the council isn’t looking to maneuver Denny into the city manager position.

”No, there was never intent.”

Denny didn’t return a voicemail seeking comment on the issue. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor voting fraud in 1996 and also came under fire from county auditors for his involvement in nearly $1 million in no-bid contracts.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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