Newport civics class draws criticism for exclusivity


 The invitation-only Newport Beach Government Academy was held at City Hall from April to June. Some residents wonder whether the workshop was a waste of tax dollars and why invitees were hand-picked.

NEWPORT BEACH – The invitations promised insiders a peek at city government in a workshop funded by a Newport Beach tourism marketing group.

Of the 31 residents and City Council hopefuls who were invited, about a dozen said yes to Newport Beach Government Academy – a free class from April to June.

“I felt privileged to be asked,” said Michael Toerge, who sits on the city Planning Commission and is running for City Council. He posted the academy certificate on his campaign Facebook page.

The academy was held at City Hall twice a month from 6 to 8 p.m., an attendee said. Attendees leafed through handouts on municipal governance and watched PowerPoint presentations delivered by city staff, including the fire captain, police chief, city attorney, finance director and human resources head.

The Newport Beach Foundation organized the academy. The foundation is a nonprofit subsidiary of Newport Beach & Company, the city’s tourism marketing arm. The city gives Newport Beach & Company a share of bed taxes, which amounted to $3.6 million last fiscal year, according to a city staff report.

The foundation, in turn, got a $5,000 grant from Newport Beach & Company. The money covered start-up costs for the new foundation and course materials for the academy.

Attendees included some past and current candidates for City Council, such as Diane Dixon and Joe Stapleton, along with local leaders culled from municipal boards and commissions.

“It was a combination of people I know and people who had served on city boards and commissions,” said Homer Bludau, a former Newport Beach city manager and now the foundation’s executive director. He said he made the list of 31 invitees after sifting through paperwork submitted by applicants to boards and commissions at the City Clerk’s Office.

Invitations to the academy didn’t arrive in the mailboxes of all council hopefuls.

One City Council candidate, Michael Glenn, wondered whether the training was an appropriate use of tax dollars meant to market the city. Others wondered whether the city’s marketing arm, Newport Beach & Company, was giving an inside track to a hand-picked few.

“Are they trying to pick who their new bosses are going be?” asked Scott Peotter. A former Planning Commissioner who is running for City Council, Peotter wasn’t invited to the classes.

Dennis O’Neil, chairman of the Newport Beach Foundation, said the foundation’s board is made up of community leaders volunteering their time, such as Marian Bergeson, a former state legislator and secretary of education.

The foundation’s stated goal is “identifying and investing in leadership talent through meaningful educational development.”

“It wasn’t set up to educate people who were running for office,” O’Neil said. “It turned out that two of the candidates were (running). If elected, I think that would make for more knowledgeable leaders.”

He said he and Bludau will sit down with the current city manager to discuss whether the academy, still in a pilot stage, should be expanded. He said it’s likely the classes would be open to the public in the future.

Stapleton, an attendee, likened some of the material to Leadership Tomorrow, a Newport Beach-based nonprofit that provides lessons on a host of civic issues through a collaboration with leaders in cities including Irvine and Costa Mesa. The program, according to its website, is open to any Orange County resident.

Contact the writer: [email protected] or Twitter:@nicolekshine



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