The Newport Beach City Council unanimously voted to hire Irvine Assistant City Manager Grace Leung as its new city manager beginning Sept. 4.

She replaces Dave Kiff, who retires Aug. 31.

Leung’s hiring comes after the City Council faced controversy when termed-out county Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has no city management experience, was apparently among the three finalists. Nelson’s name was leaked July 28 and he was eliminated from the finalists at a special council meeting July 30, after residents voiced their concerns. The city did not identify the third candidate. 

During the Aug. 14 meeting, Councilwoman Diane Dixon said Leung is “without a doubt, the most successful candidate going through our process since the beginning … I couldn’t be more pleased for our city, for our residents, for our employees.”

“I am just so honored and excited for this opportunity to serve Newport Beach,” Leung told the council. “Really, through that process, I found a very engaged and committed group of policymakers here to work with as a team.”

Leung was hired as director of administrative services for Irvine in April 2016 and later that year was promoted to assistant city manager, said Irvine spokesman Craig Reem. When Irvine’s former City Manager, Sean Joyce, retired in February, Leung served as acting city manager until the city hired John Russo July 10. Reem said Leung’s last day at Irvine is Sept. 3, a day before she takes over Kiff’s spot in Newport Beach.

According to documents in the staff report, Leung will be paid a base salary of $265,000 at Newport Beach, roughly $17,000 short of the maximum amount the city has allotted for the job, according to job posting documents.

In contrast, Irvine is paying Russo, the former Riverside city manager, a base salary of $303,000 a year.

Newport resident Jim Mosher expressed his concern over Leung making nearly the same amount as Kiff.

“I want to note that our current outgoing city manager (Kiff) … the base salary that you approved for him back in April was $265,680. This amount is only $680 less than that a year and since this new person we know nothing about … I was hoping that there might be some discussion to rationalize (the decision),” Mosher said during public comment.

Councilman Kevin Muldoon addressed Mosher’s concerns during council comments.

“I found out that Dave’s (Kiff) pension is a little bit more expensive than Grace’s … so we’re going to actually save money with Grace (Leung),” Muldoon said.

Dixon told Leung Newport Beach faces many of the same issues Irvine grapples with, including traffic, development, airport noise, rising pensions costs and a growth in homelessness.

“The issues you have been dealing with at Irvine are very similar to the issues we are dealing here in Newport Beach,” Dixon said. “Many of our issues will be very familiar to you, as I’m sure you know.”

Leung was also director of finance in Sunnyvale for six years. 

“We look to you for your wisdom and your intellect and your knowledge of city municipal finances,” Dixon said.

Councilman Brad Avery echoed Dixon’s comment.

“I definitely came to understand, through this process, that Grace (Leung) is a tremendously hard worker and is very experienced with financial issues, which is important for the city,” Avery said.

Muldoon said two people help make his decision: Kiff and Irvine Mayor Don Wagner.

“There are two people who recommended Grace who had a lot of influence on me … one is a personal friend for a long time, Mayor Wagner of Irvine and he expressed, not disappointment, but he really wanted her to apply for the position … and Dave Kiff,” Muldoon said.

Councilman Scott Peotter said it’s a testament to Leung’s character because she “survived” Irvine’s city council meetings.

“Definitely we have our issues here in Newport Beach and we can get acrimonious at times. Compared to Irvine, though, we are nice and we are polite. And to have survived Irvine says a lot for your stability and even-handedness,” Peotter said.  

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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