The majority of the hopefuls for Newport Beach City Council say development and the city’s $276-million unfunded pension liability have risen to the top of the most pressing local challenges leading to the Nov. 8 election.
However, how to best tackle those issues is where the eight candidates vying for three available council seats differ.
Businessman and community activist Mike Glenn, businessman Lee Lowrey and retired educator Jeff Herdman are vying for the District 5 seat, which represents Balboa Island, Harbor Island, the Fashion Island area and a portion of Big Canyon.
Attorney and city Finance Committee member Will O’Neill, attorney Phil Greer and former Planning Commissioner Fred Ameri are running for the District 7 seat, which represents Newport Coast and Newport Ridge.
Harbor Commissioner Brad Avery and law student Shelley Henderson are running for the District 2 seat, which represents Newport Heights and Newport Crest.
Herdman and Greer have taken a hard stance against the types of development that have gone before city leaders for consideration recently. Both have opposed the Museum House project, which proposes to build 100 condominiums in a 25-story tower in Newport Center. Both have won favor with community groups that are wary of citywide development.
“Development has almost gotten out of control in this city,” Greer said. “We’re not following the general plan; we’re spot zoning and it impacts our lives. I think we’ve reached a tipping point.”
Ameri has advocated for traffic mitigation to be a mandatory part of any development proposal.
Glenn has promoted himself as a champion for property rights.
Lowrey and O’Neill have not taken firm positions on specific projects but instead have vowed, if elected, to research and consider each project on its own merits.
O’Neill, Lowrey and Henderson have said that paying down the unfunded pension liability is their top issue.
Avery, who has spent several years on the city’s Harbor Commission, said improving water quality, dredging and infrastructure repair in the harbor rank high on his list of goals.
Regardless of who is elected, the introduction of three new council members will mark a significant change for the City Council. The results of the election will shape the vision for the city for at least the next decade, said Councilman Ed Selich, who represents District 5 and is termed out this year.
Councilman Keith Curry, who represents District 7, also is termed out, and Councilman Tony Petros, who represents District 2, is not seeking a second four-year term.
Typically, council members with longer tenure show newer members the ropes. But this year, with four current council members clocking two years of experience and three new members coming aboard, the group could face a learning curve, Selich said.
“This time around it’s a group of rookies, and it’s going to be a lot of work for them,” Selich said. “They’re going to have to determine how to deal with the pension situation and the development issues folks are concerned about.”
O’Neill said that while an entire council with less than a full term of experience may be uncommon in the city, it points to the importance of electing people with experience on city boards, commissions and committees.
“With Councilman Curry leaving the council this year, it’ll be particularly important to have someone on the council who has served on the Finance Committee and understands those critical issues,” O’Neill said.
In 2014, voters elected four council newcomers — Diane Dixon, Kevin Muldoon, Marshall “Duffy” Duffield and Scott Peotter. All were managed by campaign consultant Dave Ellis and ran on a slate known as “Team Newport.” Duffield knocked out incumbent Mayor Rush Hill in District 3.
The Team Newport members pushed for fiscal reform at City Hall, calling attention to the debt the city had incurred while building the new Civic Center complex. They also were critical of the previous council’s decision to increase fees for residential docks and swiftly moved to reduce the fees once they took their seats.
This year’s election, unlike in 2014, has not seen a traditional slate of candidates or many issues that have polarized residents, candidates said. However, Greer, Ameri and Herdman have expressed concerns that Avery, O’Neill and Lowrey, who hired Ellis as their campaign consultant, could create a voting bloc with members of Team Newport.
“All Team Newport has to do is elect one more candidate and they can exercise block voting,” Herdman said. “I’m disappointed with the possibility of that. Past councils each have had individual thinkers, and that’s missing from our council now.”
However, O’Neill and Avery said they find the notion of someone pulling strings behind the scenes and telling them how to vote highly unlikely.
Once people are elected, they often find like-minded members of the council, which can result in similar votes, Avery said.
“I can’t imagine getting a phone call telling me how to vote,” he said. “If it ever happened, I would say ‘Thank you for your comment’ and cast my vote in the best interest of the city.”