Newport Beach residents will decide if they want to directly elect their own mayor with a ballot measure coming before voters next June, while concerns persist from some residents who worry a change will give the mayor too much power.
The city council voted 4-3 Tuesday night in favor of letting voters decide if they want to change the system for electing the mayor in Newport Beach.
“We’re not giving executive power to any great mogul that’s going to sit up here and change the way of our lives. We’re simply giving the citizens of Newport the ability to choose their mayor,” said Councilman Noah Blom who requested the measure be brought up for a vote.
Blom said the reason he requested the measure is to give Newport Beach voters the ability to directly elect their mayor and that there needs to be a person who can push back on state and federal government mandates.
“This is still America and we’re going to fight for every element that is America and that’s the democracy that we hold dear,” Blom said. “I’m not saying it’ll always be perfect. I’m not saying you’ll always like the person in power, but at least it’s your choice and not ours. It should be up to the people as everything in this country should be.”
Currently, council members decide amongst themselves who gets to sit on the mayor’s seat every year — a practice followed by many cities throughout OC.
Councilmembers Diane Dixon, Joy Brenner and Mayor Brad Avery voted against the ballot measure.
At the meeting, Dixon unsuccessfully tried to call for the creation of a citizens committee to consider how to reform the charter, including on how the mayor is chosen.
She said the ballot measure lacks transparency and public input.
“The matter before us this evening has not been exposed to transparent public scrutiny, public debate, compromise or consensus building — the foundational processes of a democratic system of government,” she said.
“The proposal before us tonight will substantially alter our form of government and it will dramatically change the public citizen representation structure that has served us for 70 years,” Dixon said.
She also said she got a Tuesday afternoon call from someone telling her to abstain from voting, but did not say who the caller was.
“I received a telephone call suggesting that if I said these words tonight, if I voted no — my political future is in jeopardy,” she said.
Like Dixon, some residents who spoke during the meeting also felt there was no citizen involvement in creating the measure, along with criticism that the proposal wasn’t thoroughly debated in public.
Other residents who spoke against the measure at Tuesday’s meeting said they are happy with the current system in place.
Among the ballot measure critics are former city council members, like Nancy Gardner.
They are worried such a change, if approved by voters, will give too much power to the mayor and will create loopholes around term limits.
“The system we have now is very fair and reasonable,” said resident Elizabeth Stahr. “We do not want a political mayor in Newport Beach. The mayor must work with other city council members. Be their equal, not superior.”
Several people also showed up to the meeting to speak in favor of the measure, expressing support for directly electing their mayor because they said it could bring consistency to city leadership and expand their voting options.
“We trust our citizens to elect our representatives to Congress, Senate and President. They can and should be trusted with electing our mayor,” said Heather Ignatin who serves on the city’s Parks, Beaches & Recreation commission.
“Our current system by design is a revolving door of leadership, which severely limits the mayor’s ability to get things done,” she added.
One of the main concerns from critics of the ballot measure is that it would give the elected mayor discretion to set meeting agendas without support of council members and sidelining the city manager.
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.
If the ballot measure is approved, the city manager would lose the ability to put items on the agenda.
“One particularly unusual aspect of this proposal is that it eliminates the city manager’s ability to put items on the agenda,” said resident Dr. Susan Skinner. “The city manager will be required to run every routine agenda item through the mayor, effectively making all city business dependent on the approval of that mayor.”
Ballot measure proponents argue that because the city manager is not an elected official, they should not be able to set the agenda of meetings where council members create policies and ordinances that affect residents.
The policy of three or more council members agreeing on an item before it hits a future agenda will remain in place.
Currently, local elections are split up into seven districts, with each council member representing one of the districts. Council members pick from among themselves someone to serve as mayor for a year.
If voters approve the measure, the number of districts would be reduced to six because the mayor’s seat wouldn’t be tied to a district.
Although Newport Beach has council districts, elections are still at large — meaning people can vote for a candidate outside of their district.
“The six new District boundaries would be established no later than six months prior to the general municipal election in 2024, by ordinance of the City Council,” according to a staff report attached to the meeting’s agenda.
Councilwoman Brenner also tried to make a motion Tuesday night to have a directly elected mayor but with a two year term limit without decreasing the districts and not including other aspects of the measure.
She received support from Councilwoman Dixon and Mayor Avery but the motion failed.
In the measure approved by council, the mayor would be eligible to serve for two four year terms, but no more than that in a lifetime.
The measure would not reset term limits for current city council members.
Prior to the council’s decision Tuesday, Councilman Will O’Neill, expected to term out of office in 2024, brought forward the proposed measure to the city earlier this year as chairman of the campaign to have residents elect their own Mayor.
The initiative would have required over 9,000 valid signatures from registered Newport Beach voters to get the measure on the June 2022 ballot.
Some residents argued that the measure should go through the signature process.
According to the staff report, placing a charter amendment on the June 22 ballot will cost the city $215,000.
Similar ballot measures may soon be considered in other cities in the county.
Huntington Beach City Councilman Mike Posey came to the meeting in support of the ballot measure and said they rotate the mayor in similar ways to Newport Beach, but hinted that could change.
“We’re going to try to do the same thing,” he said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.