As Voice of OC has reported, there is a debate in Newport Beach about whether to change the charter, so that voters elect their mayor directly.

Under the current system, residents elect seven members of the city council and then the members elect (each year) one of their number to serve as mayor for a one-year term. Given the small size of the council, and the four-year terms of the members, and the frequency of second terms, most people who are elected to city council serve as mayor for at least one year. The people thus select their mayor indirectly, by electing a city council whose role includes selecting the mayor.

If you look at other cities in California, some of them have directly elected mayors but far more have city councils that select a short-term mayor from among their number. Cities with large populations generally elect the mayor directly, while cities with smaller populations almost always have mayors selected among the city council members.

If you look at cities in Orange County with about the same population as Newport Beach, in other words, 80 to 100 thousand people, only one of them, Westminster, elects its mayor directly. Five cities in this bracket, including Mission Viejo and Lake Forest, both with larger populations than Newport Beach, use the same system as Newport Beach. And there are even larger cities, including Huntington Beach, that use the indirect system.

The current system effectively ensures that mayors have experience in our city government. If you look at the men and women who have been mayor since 2001, all but one of them served at least a year as mayor pro tem and another year as city council member before becoming mayor. The only exception was a mayor selected mid-year, to fill a vacancy, and even he had served eighteen months on city council before taking his position as mayor.

Under the proposed system, there is no guarantee that the person elected as mayor will have any prior experience in our city government.

The current system of selecting the mayor from among the council members for a one-year term, and limiting the mayor’s role to presiding over the council meetings, works well. The system encourages collegiality among the members of the council, because each member either has served or is likely to serve soon as mayor. The system also encourages the city staff to treat each member of the council with respect, not to defer to a powerful mayor and to slight the weaker council members. The proposed system would change the city manager into something like chief-of-staff for the mayor.

I have personal experience with a system similar to that which the proposal would create: I worked five years at the Securities & Exchange Commission, including three years in the chairman’s office. The SEC is composed of four commissioners and a chairman, appointed by the president. Each member has one vote, but the chairman controls the agenda, and has a few other powers, that make him or her by far the most powerful member of the commission. I saw firsthand how the chairman treated the other commissioners as mere pawns, and the way in which the staff members answered to the chairman, rather than to the whole commission. We do not want to replicate that here in Newport Beach.

Several former city council members oppose the proposed charter change, including Nancy Gardner, Jeff Herdman, Jean Watt and Don Webb. They know, better than anyone else, how well the current system works.

In the Voice of OC article, Will O’Neill argued that a “problem” under the current system was that the city manager, who is not elected, has the power to put items on the council’s agenda. The city manager, however, generally only places items on the agenda which are routine or at the request of council members; she cannot force the council to discuss issues they do not want to discuss. And in any case, the city manager is selected by the city council; she is not some “independent power.”

Responding to concerns about corruption, Mr. O’Neill said that “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.” This misses the point. Men are not angels, as James Madison so famously said, and we need to design systems of government for men and women. The current system forces a would-be-mayor to go through two elections; first, the general election, to become a member of the city council, and then the election within the council, to become mayor. A two-level process is more likely to select a good mayor, a clean mayor, than the proposed one-level direct election.

It may be tempting for the city council, at its October 26 meeting, to say “some people favor the proposal, some people oppose it, let us put the issue on the ballot, and let the people decide.” That would be, in my view, a mistake. Not every proposed change to the city charter that garners some support (and we do not know how many people have signed the petition) deserves a place on the ballot. The city council members should vote “no” on October 26 or, in the alternative, they should form a balanced study group to look at the issues and report back to the council. There is no great rush to change the Newport Beach city charter; if we are going to have changes, let us take the time to study the issues and “get it right.”

Walter Stahr is a resident of Newport Beach, a lawyer and the author of several well-received biographies of American leaders. His parents, John and Elizabeth Stahr, were honored as “citizens of the year” in Newport Beach in 2016.

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