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Newport Beach City Council members began interviewing three finalists for a new city manager at a special meeting Monday morning, sparking concern from some residents about the transparency of 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.

After the city clerk announced the special meeting Friday, the name of one apparent job candidate leaked: county Supervisor Shawn Nelson. Former mayor Keith Curry circulated an email naming Nelson as one of the three finalists and criticizing Nelson as “a political lawyer” and the city council majority as “poised to select an unqualified political hack to carry out their agenda.”

Nelson, a Republican, 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.

Nelson tried to place a measure on the ballot in 2016 to change term limits for supervisors from two to three terms, a proposal he dropped after facing heavy criticism that he was introducing the measure to benefit himself.

The supervisor is a personal injury lawyer and was a Fullerton city councilman for more than seven years from 2002 to June 2010, when he was elected to the Board of Supervisors. But he has no experience managing a large government or private industry workforce, according to his county biography.

A Newport Beach LinkedIn web page says “the City has approximately 725 full-time employees and hundreds of part-time and seasonal employees.”

Nelson did not return several calls and text messages for comment Saturday or Sunday.

A search firm hired by the city recruited 72 candidates, seven who were interviewed by the council at a special meeting on July 23. Of those seven, the council picked three finalists, who were slated to be interviewed at an August 13 meeting.

On Friday, the city clerk posted a notice that those interviews would be moved up to a special meeting at 9 a.m. Monday.

More than 50 residents turned out for the early morning meeting Monday, and all the speakers were critical of the council. Several questioned why the meeting was rescheduled.

According to Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, the meeting was moved up after the council “discovered our candidates for city manager are known” and out of respect for the privacy of the candidates. He didn’t confirm or name any of the three finalists.

City Councilman Jeff Herdman sent an email to his supporters Saturday raising questions about why the interviews were rescheduled, writing that he questioned the city clerk about the change and “received a very evasive answer.”

“My fear is that what is taking place here is a repeat of what the council majority did to Dave (Kiff),” Herdman wrote. “I believe that the council majority has identified a candidate they want in the position, and they are moving forward on this without having provided any explanation to the entire council.”

Without naming any of the three candidates, Herdman said two of the three finalists are “outstanding,” but “the third is not, however, I fear that this candidate may be the council majority’s favored candidate, and to be honest with you, I am losing sleep, as well as quite disturbed about this possibility.”

Councilman Scott Peotter, a member of the council majority, addressed some of those concerns in emails to residents Saturday, denying he or the council have “pre-selected” any single candidate.

Peotter wrote Kiff was hired “with no previous city manager experience (in other words there are other things that can make you qualified) and that he started his career as staff for Senator Marian Bergeson (responding to the rumors that a political candidate is being chosen over a qualified candidate).”

Kiff came to Newport Beach in 1998 as assistant to the city manager and was appointed to the top role in 2009. Prior to joining the city, Kiff worked for the city of Orange, the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the California State Legislature. He worked on the legislative staff for Bergeson, a Newport Beach Republican, former state legislator and former county supervisor.

Newport Beach resident Eric Nowlin criticized Peotter during public comment Monday for his “inappropriate” comments about Kiff’s experience, noting that Kiff worked in the city manager’s office for nearly 11 years before he received the top appointment.

Nowlin said Peotter’s comments suggest “the council is signaling they want to hire somebody who does not have city manager experience, who is considered political and who does not meet the qualifications.”

In his email, Peotter also accused Herdman of leaking the name of a city manager candidate in order to whip up public pressure and kill their candidacy.

After hearing from angry residents Monday morning, Herdman made a motion to stop the hiring process until after the November general election. None of his colleagues supported the motion.

As the council adjourned to closed session to conduct interviews of the finalists — some of which Duffield said would be conducted by phone — residents in the council chambers began shouting “vote them out!”

According to the notice posted on the city’s website, the council will only be interviewing candidates Monday and will not vote to appoint a new city manager.

Some residents have accused members of the council – including Peotter, Kevin Muldoon, Will O’Neill and Duffield – of conspiring to oust Kiff, and violating the state open meetings law in the process. The law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, prohibits a majority of council members from discussing or making decisions about public affairs outside an open public meeting.

Those council members have denied those accusations, and the council made a public pledge to follow the Brown Act throughout the search process to find a new city manager, according the Daily Pilot.

Resident Jim Mosher argues the city council must report if they take any kind of informal vote or action in closed session to narrow the field of candidates.

“If a decision is made to narrow the field of candidates, the public is entitled to know that decision was made, and by whom,” Mosher wrote in an email to the council. “If a decision was made to select three finalists, the public should know who the finalists are and who voted to select them.”

City Attorney Aaron Harp, however, disagreed, and argued that Mosher’s reading of the law was too narrow.

“The action is to appoint [a candidate] – there are other things that happen associated to the appointment that don’t need to be reported out,” Harp said. “What if you enter into negotiations and things don’t pan out?”

At a previous meeting, the council voted to appoint Duffield as the lead negotiator. If the council makes a final selection Monday, Duffield can begin negotiating a contract with them on behalf of the entire council, Harp said.

The council would approve the employment contract at an upcoming meeting.

But Terry Francke, an open government expert with Californians Aware and Voice of OC Brown Act consultant, said if the council decides in closed session to enter into negotiations with a candidate, the council’s vote and the name of the candidate should be disclosed immediately.

“They needn’t report every twist and turn in the road to the final ink on paper, but if they’ve made a commitment [that] they want to hire applicant X, that is something they public needs to know,” said Francke.

“It could be that somewhere along this process of negotiation, the agreement breaks off, and they decide not to hire them,” Francke said.  “That’s always possible, with many different decisions the council makes.”

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

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