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The Newport Beach City Council eliminated one of three finalists vying to be the new city manager, after one apparent finalist’s name – county Supervisor Shawn Nelson – was leaked this weekend, sparking controversy over the appointment.

Councilmembers interviewed the three candidates by telephone during a two-hour closed session, after which they announced the decision to eliminate one candidate, without naming that person.

“After conducting the final round of interviews, the Council will now pursue one of the other two candidates.  We sincerely hope that the process has not been so compromised that the candidate refuses consideration,” according to the statement.

The council statement took aim at councilman Jeff Herdman for releasing an email to his supporters Saturday, in which he said two of the finalists are “outstanding” but “the third is not.”

The council statement – read aloud by city attorney Aaron Harp after the closed session — noted that, when the council was narrowing the pool of seven candidates to the three finalists, Herdman cast the deciding fourth vote.

“To set the record straight, the candidate Mr. Herdman now calls unqualified received a bare majority of four Council Member votes,” according to the statement. “Without Mr. Herdman’s support, the candidate in question would not be the subject of community speculation.”

More than 50 residents turned out for the special meeting Monday morning, which began at 9 a.m., with many criticizing the council for moving up the candidate interviews – originally scheduled for August 13 – last-minute.

After the city clerk posted a notice for the special meeting late Friday afternoon, Nelson’s name began circulating, including in an email in which former mayor Keith Curry criticized Nelson as an “unqualified political hack.”

Nelson did not return several calls and text messages seeking comment on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Mayor Marshall Duffield said at Monday’s meeting that he called the last-minute meeting to quash rumors and speculation about the selection process.

The city council is looking to fill the position after the current city manager, Dave Kiff, announced in March he would retire at the end of the year, before his contract ends in April 2019. Several residents and former city elected officials have accused a faction of the city council of forcing Kiff to retire, a claim they have vehemently denied.

Several residents called on the council Monday to find a candidate with experience as a city manager and in city government.

Nelson, a lawyer and Republican from Fullerton, has served two terms as the Fourth District supervisor and will be termed out at the end of 2018. He recently ran for Congress in north Orange County’s 39th Congressional District, but was eliminated in the June primary election. Nelson filed to run for a Superior Court Judge seat in 2016 but never followed through.

Herdman declined to comment after the vote.

Earlier in the meeting, Herdman made a motion to stop the hiring process until after the November election, but the motion failed without support from his colleagues. When the council adjourned to closed session, residents leaving the chambers chanted, “vote them out!”

Harp declined to disclose which council members voted to eliminate the third candidate, arguing such a disclosure is not required and council members voluntarily disclosed additional information for the public’s benefit.

The entire closed session statement is below:

The City’s recruiting firm has counseled confidentiality throughout the City Manager application and selection process. Excellent candidates are willing to apply if they do not have to worry that their current employers question loyalty. The City Council agreed unanimously in Closed Session to respect confidentiality.

The Council agreed to interview 7 of the 72 applicants.  After a full day of in-person interviews, three candidates received majority support for final interviews.

The City’s recruiting firm scheduled final teleconference interviews for August 13, 2018.

Within days, rumors circulated online that purported to disclose the name of one or more of the final candidates.  The Mayor called a special meeting that moved up the August 13 interviews to, hopefully, stop the rumors and inaccuracies and potentially lose good candidates for this most important position.

On Saturday, July 28, Council Member Jeff Herdman issued a public statement regarding the qualifications of the final three candidates.  His statement violated the confidentiality he agreed to uphold and contained a number of inaccurate statements.

To set the record straight, the candidate Mr. Herdman now calls unqualified received a bare majority of four Council Member votes.  Mr. Herdman cast the deciding fourth vote.  Without Mr. Herdman’s support, the candidate in question would not be the subject of community speculation.

After conducting the final round of interviews, the Council will now pursue one of the other two candidates.  We sincerely hope that the process has not been so compromised that the candidate refuses consideration.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter  @thyanhvo. 

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