NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—Some Newport Beach residents are questioning an “Elect Our Mayor” city charter amendment measure by former Mayor and current City Councilman Will O’Neill that would make the mayor a resident-elected position instead of a rotated position within the council.
The city currently operates under a council-manager system whereby voters choose each of their seven district council members in a citywide election, and the council members then rotate the mayor and mayor pro tem positions each year, usually for a one-year term, though several have been chosen to hold the seat for more than one term.
“It was interesting, last year, when I was mayor, and I was running for reelection to the city council, a number of people were surprised to find out that they weren’t voting for the mayor–they were voting for a city council member,” O’Neill said.
“A number of people asked why, and the answer, ‘because it’s always been that way,’ is not a good answer. So, offering to give back power that’s right now in the hands of the city council is something that we ought to think about from time to time.”
The move would also extend the mayor’s term limit to four years instead of one and give the power of setting council agendas to the mayor, rather than the city manager.
In addition, the amendment would also trigger a redistricting of the city down to six districts from seven.
If approved, Newport Beach would switch to a mayor-council system—as opposed to the council-manager structure the city has used for the better part of its history.
Former Mayor Evelyn Hart, who served two terms as mayor during her tenure on the city council, told The Epoch Times that she wasn’t in favor of the amendment.
“I don’t personally feel that we need that [proposed] type of government. I think our city runs very well,” Hart said.
Former City Councilman Jeff Herdman agreed.
“Things have changed, but are they big enough to warrant a dramatic change in our city charter? When it comes to our form of representative government, our city fathers wrote a city charter that divided our city into equitable districts, each that have an elected individual charged with the responsibility of representing the constituents within their respective district,” Herdman told The Epoch Times.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with our current structure. I think supporters of this idea don’t understand the true ramifications.”
Instead of introducing the measure to the city council, which would allow for public comment, O’Neill launched the campaign via social media and has organized a group of volunteers to collect the required 9,000 resident signatures that would place it on the 2022 ballot.
“That’s the beauty of representative democracy, is having to go out and sell your vision to the voters and ultimately letting them make that choice for themselves,” O’Neill said.
“The whole process here requires a vote of the people. It’s not an easy process and one that requires a lot of time [and] effort, but I obviously think that it’s worth it, and so do a whole bunch of people volunteering right now to collect signatures on this process, and I appreciate that.”
Newport Beach resident Susie McKibben told The Epoch Times that she supported the move.
“If the Mayor is directly elected and the districts are redrawn from seven to six, I understand that the six council members and the mayor would have to run city-wide,” she said via text. “In effect, all of the city council members and the mayor would continue to represent and be accountable to every resident in our city. I like that system now and would like it after the voters approve the change.”
However, a community leader who asked to remain anonymous told The Epoch Times that the city manager should continue to be the one to set the agendas for council meetings.
“Under our current system, city council members are elected and are part of the organization for one four-year term or up to eight years max if they are reelected for a second term,” the community leader said. “A city manager can easily be in place for a decade or longer, and what people may not realize is that it is the city manager’s job to understand the entire internal workings of the city. Mayors do not. To take away the agenda-setting responsibility from the city manager, in my opinion, is a very bad idea.”
A city official who also wished to remain anonymous told The Epoch Times that the proposed change seems unnecessary.
“This feels like a solution looking for a problem,” the official said. “There’s no problem right now, right? We’re not in debt. We’re not bankrupt. We’re not COVID-ridden. Even given the past two years, we’re doing just great. So, it’s kind of suspect as to why you would have to change things. One reason that you could say is it’s because one person wants the power of another two terms.”
Newport Beach resident and vocal community advocate, Dr. Susan Skinner, has launched a campaign to defeat O’Neill’s proposed measure.
“This might sound like an innocuous change, but it is not. This initiative allows a councilperson to finish eight years in office and have another eight years as mayor,” Skinner wrote in an email blast to residents last week. “It will create an immensely powerful mayor and it removes substantial authority from other decision-makers.”
She also noted that O’Neill’s colleagues on the council are against the measure.
“It is worthwhile noting that his council colleagues don’t support this change,” Skinner said. “Perhaps they are annoyed that the initiative excludes the mayor from the term limits approved by the voters in 1992, allowing for up to 16 consecutive years in office, but maintains term limits for them. Maybe they don’t like having one man decide how the government should run, especially if that one man is positioning himself to become that powerful mayor.”
A Better System?
Earlier in 2021, the Newport Beach City Council approved a $309.1 million budget for fiscal year 2021, and it has $55.3 million in reserve funds.
In 2020, Moody’s gave the city its highest Aaa rating.
“The credit position for Newport Beach is extremely strong,” Moody’s said. “Its Aaa rating is significantly above the median rating of Aa3 for U.S. cities. Notable credit factors include an extensive tax base, a very strong wealth and income profile, and a robust financial position. It also reflects a negligible debt burden and a significant pension liability.”
O’Neill told The Epoch Times that the proposed amendment is about continuing to make the city better.
“The system’s not broken, it’s just fine,” he said. “We can do better, and that has always been something that Newport Beach is known for. It’s not sitting back on just being fine and is always looking for something better.
“As we see more and more cities moving to the directly-elected mayor system, including Tustin, which just recently voted to do that—Huntington Beach is talking about doing it—then we need to be in a position where we’re not finding ourselves behind the curve.”
According to the International City/County Managers Association, “the mayor or board chairperson in a council-manager community is a voting member of the governing body [city council] who may be either directly elected, as in 69 percent of council-manager communities, or who is selected by and from among their colleagues on the governing body.”
The council-manager form of city governance was established in 1915 by The National Civic League as part of an effort to battle corruption and partisanship in local government. The model recommends that cities be managed by a city manager, hired by the mayor and city council according to their abilities, not their political allegiances.
Under the council-manager structure, the mayor “is the public face of the community who presides at meetings, assigns agenda items to committees, facilitates communication and understanding between elected and appointed officials, and assists the governing body in setting goals and advocating policy decisions,” according to the organization.
“This is very clearly not about me. I know some people would like it to be, but that would be a silly reason to try to do any kind of institutional change,” O’Neill stated.
“I’m planning on living here for the long haul, and given the record that I have on city council, it’s abundantly clear that I’m looking way past my own service. I also am pretty excited about serving the community in other ways down the road as well, so there’s a lot of opportunity here. But the point is that this system is a better system than we have right now.”
O’Neill terms out in 2024, and when asked if he would run again, he said he would consider it.
“Under this [new] system, any person in the city can run for mayor, so I would be one of the 85,000 people who could potentially run for it,” he said.