Newport Beach voters may be able to elect their own mayor directly with a potential new ballot measure being championed by some local city officials and residents, but critics say the changes would give the mayor too much power.
While there is support from some residents in giving voters the opportunity to pick who will sit at the center of the dais, others are wondering what such a change in governance will cost them.
The proposed measure would give the elected mayor discretion to set meeting agendas without support of council members — an idea favored by some residents, but concerning to others.
Residents like Dr. Susan Skinner are worried such a move would give all the power to the mayor — giving them exclusive control over setting city council meeting agendas, while sidelining the city manager.
“It takes us from having a kind of equal level playing field for everybody that sits up on the dais and it creates an immensely powerful mayor, who will in essence control the direction of the city.”Susan Skinner, Newport Beach Resident
Under the current city council policy, the city manager has the discretion to put an item on the agenda. Alternatively, If three or more council members agree on an issue they want to discuss or act on at a public meeting, the issue is added to a future city council meeting agenda.
Supporters of the measure like City Councilman Will O’Neill argue the city manager isn’t elected, so it should be up to the mayor and council to set the agenda.
“It’s really important to remember that the purpose of a city council is to set policy and the only way for us to set policy is through the agenda and it makes no sense that we’re delegating our primary function to someone who is not elected by the people,” O’Neill said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Similar debates have played out in Anaheim following sweeping changes spearheaded by Mayor Harry Sidhu in early 2019.
Before the policy changes, any council member could place an item on the agenda.
Now, at least three Anaheim council members have to agree on an item before it lands on a future agenda — except for the mayor, who can place items on the agenda without council support.
Under the proposed Newport Beach ballot measure, the city manager would lose the ability to put items on an agenda.
However, if at least three council members can agree publicly on a proposed agenda item, they would still be able to get the issue on a future agenda under the proposed measure too.
Currently, local elections are split up into seven districts, with each council member representing one of the districts.
The council members then pick one person to serve as the mayor for a year before they pick another person from the dais as the next mayor.
Under the ballot proposal, Newport Beach voters would directly elect their mayor in a citywide race — mirroring Anaheim.
That means Newport Beach’s seven council districts will be reduced to six with a seventh spot for the mayor if voters approve the changes.
Some residents criticized the proposal during last week’s City Council meeting.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and that’s what I’m hearing from people coming to me bringing it up and saying why would we be doing this,” said Newport Beach resident Nancy Skinner, the mother of Susan Skinner, at the meeting.
At the same meeting, council members voted unanimously to consider putting the proposed city charter changes next year’s June or November ballot on a future city council agenda at the request of Councilman Noah Blom.
O’Neill, expected to term out of office in 2024, is chairman of the campaign to have residents elect their own Mayor and brought forward the proposed measure to the city earlier this year.
He said the council will decide on putting the initiative on the ballot at their meeting next week.
“It’s really important to give people a voice and allowing people to select who their mayor is, is a really important function of local democracy — and while our system in Newport Beach is certainly not broken, it can be improved.”Will O’Neill, Newport Beach City Councilman
It will take over 9,000 valid signatures from registered Newport Beach voters to get the measure on the June 2022 ballot.
However, if the council votes next week to put the initiative on the ballot, those signatures will no longer be needed.
Regardless, the decision to change how council agendas are set and how mayors are elected will still be left to voters.
Some residents have expressed support for a directly elected mayor.
“As a prominent city we should be electing a strong chief executive officer and spokesperson. We should have a candidate that is elected by the people setting the council agendas,” wrote Anita Rosvek, a resident, in a letter to the Newport Beach Independent.
Others feel differently.
They want the potential ballot measure to be discussed out in the open and be subjected to public debate.
Susan Skinner said in a Monday phone interview there would be more resident support if a thorough public discussion on the proposed ballot measure took place, as well as certain adjustments made to the proposal.
She said she worries the measure will provide a loophole around term limits by allowing people to serve for eight years on the council then another eight years as mayor if elected by the voters.
O’Neill said the proposed changes would strengthen term limits and voters should have a choice if they want someone with experience on the council to serve as mayor.
“The mayor’s term limits are lifetime term limits of two terms, which is not the case for city council so it actually creates a stricter term limit for the position of mayor,” he said. “But to the concern that someone could serve on city council and then run for mayor — that’s up to the voters.”
Under the changes, the mayor would serve for four years and would be unable to run for a seat on the city council in the term immediately following their time as mayor.
Council members who served two terms could go on to run as a mayor and potentially serve for another eight years.
The mayor would be eligible to serve for two four year terms, but no more than that. The measure would not reset term limits for current city council members.
Some Newport residents are also concerned the measure will open the door to corruption, while simultaneously making elections less competitive, more costly and creating an imbalanced representation on the dais.
Susan Skinner said if someone has influence with the mayor or has contributed heavily to their campaign, that person would be able to potentially get items on the agenda.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and this proposal gives the mayor’s orders of magnitude more power, which puts them potentially in a situation where that power could be corrupted,” she said.
O’Neill said the mayor will still be one of seven votes.
“If someone is inclined to be corrupt, it’s not the position that they hold that matters, it’s the person themselves and that’s all the more reason to force someone to go through an election and be under the scrutiny of voters,” he said.
There are also concerns from residents that policy would silence unpopular voices on the council.
“If you are a city council person that has issues that are important to you, but you’re not seen as a team player, you’re not supporting the mayor. The mayor really has the ability to simply shut down your priorities,” Susan said.
Similar concerns have been raised in Anaheim, following Sidhu’s early 2019 sweeping changes that require three council members to support an agenda item.
Those changes don’t apply to Sidhu.
Things like proposed discussions on the Angel stadium land deal or citywide housing policies were routinely shot down by the council majority.
Anaheim now faces a lawsuit alleging council members broke public transparency law when they voted to sell the stadium and the roughly 150 acres it sits on for $150 million.
And the state housing department has warned the city may have violated surplus land law when council members voted to sell the stadium, although a final determination hasn’t been made.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.