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Newport down to 2 city manager candidates; hints county supervisor is not among them

Newport down to 2 city manager candidates; hints county supervisor is not among them
Speculation about Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson's possible candidacy for Newport Beach's city manager job brought criticism from local activists, who called him unqualified. (File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

Newport Beach has whittled its city manager short list from three finalists to two, and though it still isn’t naming names, the City Council admonished one of its members Monday for speaking out against a candidate believed to be Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, in violation of a confidentiality agreement.

The developments came after another round of closed-door interviews Monday, prefaced by a brief open session in which residents’ comments about the hiring process ranged from wary to acrimonious.

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The council interviewed seven semifinalists last week to replace City Manager Dave Kiff, who is leaving Aug. 31, and originally set finalist interviews for Aug. 13. However, Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield rescheduled the finalist interviews for Monday after social media posts suggested one finalist was Nelson, a lawyer and termed-out county supervisor who ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in the June primary election.

Local activists including Susan Skinner and former mayor Keith Curry weighed in against Nelson by name, calling him unqualified.

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Councilman Jeff Herdman, who has been critical of his colleagues about the handling of Kiff’s exit and the search for his replacement, sent an email to constituents over the weekend sharing fears and reservations about one of the candidates, though the email did not state any names.

A council statement issued Monday through City Attorney Aaron Harp didn’t name Nelson but implied he was one of the final three and suggested he isn’t in the running now.

“Rumors circulated online that purported to disclose the name of one or more of the final candidates,” the statement said. “On Saturday, council member Jeff Herdman issued a public statement regarding the qualifications of the final three candidates. … To set the record straight, the candidate Mr. Herdman now calls unqualified received a bare majority of four council member votes [to make the candidate a finalist]. Mr. Herdman cast the deciding fourth vote. Without Mr. Herdman’s support, the candidate in question would not be the subject of community speculation.”

Now, the statement said, the city plans to move ahead with one of the two other candidates.

A spokeswoman for Nelson did not respond to a request for comment.

The council statement said Herdman broke a confidentiality agreement that he and the rest of the council agreed to and that he made inaccurate statements.

Herdman did not comment at the meeting. Reached Monday night, he said in an email, “Looks like election season is upon us.”

Before heading into the interviews Monday, Herdman moved to table the hiring process until after the November council election, drawing applause from most of the roughly 50 people in the audience.

After no one on the council seconded the motion, many in the audience chanted “Vote them out!” and one person shouted “Cowards!”

The city has been tight-lipped about who it is considering to replace Kiff, a popular 20-year city employee who has been in the top administrative position since 2009. Since he announced his plans in March to step down this summer — eight months ahead of his previously planned departure in April — residents have rallied behind Kiff and accused a majority of the council of conspiring to force him out. One resident filed a complaint with the city alleging the council violated the state open meetings law in discussing Kiff’s exit. Another has filed a lawsuit seeking a special prosecutor to investigate similar allegations.

The members of the council majority, including Duffield, Scott Peotter, Kevin Muldoon and Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill, have denied the accusations.

10:10 p.m.: This article was updated with Jeff Herdman’s comment Monday night.

This article was originally published at 5:40 p.m.

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