George introduced member Will O’Neill, Council Member and former Mayor of Newport Beach. Will grew up in Fresno, and obtained his undergraduate degree from Stanford and his law degree from UC, Hastings. Will resides in Newport Beach with his wife and their 9 year old daughter and 7 year old son. He appeared to discuss “Elect our Mayor” and a few City matters.
Will shared a 1953 photo of the Boy Scout Jamboree, with tents sprawled across what is now Jamboree Road, where bison roamed. That year, the City enacted its current council system in which seven council members are elected to seven districts, with the electorate voting for all council members. Each December, with no criteria, council selects a mayor. This system is part of the City’s charter and may only be modified by the citizens.
Will contrasted 1953 Newport Beach to today. The City is larger, more complex, and
required to interact with many government agencies. Harbor Commissioner Gary Williams explained, “In our Harbor alone, we interact with California Coastal Commission, U.S. Coast Guard, Orange County Sheriffs, California Air Resources [also] CalTrans…, FAA, Housing & Community Development, etc.” Newport Beach has a big budget, larger than San Clemente, Dana Point, Laguna, Beach, and Lake Forest combined. With an elected mayor system, it would be the one with Orange County’s third largest budget.
Will was mayor in 2020, a year of unprecedented challenges. It began with the helicopter crash that killed seven, followed quickly by the onset of the pandemic, Police protests came next, five in a single day. Newport Beach has exceptionally talented and dedicated police. It funds its police well, allowing it to attract and retain the best candidates. Its police are in sharp contrast to the perpetrators of George Floyd’s arrest.
Minneapolis was so dissatisfied with its Police Department it voted November 2nd whether to replace it. The alternative was a Department of Public Safety that proposed a “holistic” approach to public safety, not necessarily sending police on calls involving mental health. Fortunately, voters retained the Police Department, but an astonishing 43% voted for the alternative. Minneapolis also recently passed a strong mayor system.
This system has an elected mayor separate from council who appoints department heads, proposes the budget to council, and has veto power. In a weak mayor system, like Newport Beach, the mayor is not apart from council, has one vote and no veto power, and shares most duties with council. Strong mayor cities in California include Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.
Being mayor in 2020 made Will question the rotating mayor system. Had another council member been mayor, he/she most likely would have handled matters differently. He proposes mayoral candidates communicate their positions to citizens, and the electorate votes in the mayor. Articulating one’s positions is difficult and would improve an elected mayor’s communication and persuasion skills.
Also, a term exceeding one year would enhance the mayor’s ability to build lasting relationships with the many government agencies with which the mayor must interact.
With Elect our Mayor, the number of districts would decrease from seven to six, with one council member per district plus the mayor. Each council member, and the mayor, would continue to have one vote, and the mayor would not have veto power. Agenda setting for council meetings would shift from city manager to mayor. Council term limits would not change or reset. The mayor would have a lifetime limit of two, four year terms.
Opponents express concern someone could serve sixteen years (two, four year terms on council plus two, four year terms as mayor). While true, it’s also true the current system permits a person to serve eight years on council, sit out four, another eight, and repeat. At his age, Will could serve 24 years. And, if voters elect an experienced council member for two terms as mayor, that’s their choice.
Some argue Elect our Mayor gives the mayor too much power. It’s unclear how, because with either system the mayor has one of seven votes and no veto power.
Will speculated it might be because the mayor would set council’s agenda. Council’s role is to set policy for the city manager to enact. It seems appropriate for the mayor to set the agenda. Notably, the city manager sets the agenda by tradition, not charter. Also, like now, three council members would be able to add an agenda item. With less than three members, an item probably isn’t worth consideration.
The debate boils down to whether you trust voters and Will does. If they elect a “bad” mayor, they can recall or vote the mayor out. Also, two councilmen and the mayor would be elected in a presidential year; four council-men in a non presidential year. Two years after electing a “bad” mayor, voters could elect a block to neutralize the mayor.
Costa Mesa, Tustin, and Irvine have elected mayors. Their longer serving mayors
can build lasting relationships with government agencies, Will O’Neill putting Newport Beach behind if it continues with a rotating mayor.
Jeff suggested Newport Beach adopt a strong mayor system. Will prefers the city manager/council government for Newport Beach, as strong mayor requires more staff and other costs, and a full-time mayor. Elect our Mayor is a good compromise.
Will gave a few City updates. With 2020 budget cuts and a quicker recovery than ex- pected, the City has a $31 million reserve. It’ll likely pay down pensions and invest in infrastructure. He noted an upcoming change requiring three cans for trash, recycling, and organic waste. He opined the oil spill could have been much worse and commended the Coast Guard and City for their work. Finally, while crime is rising elsewhere, for unknown reasons, it’s declining in Newport Beach.