Newport Beach City Council hopefuls who took the stage for the Feet to the Fire forum at Orange Coast College on Wednesday night each vowed to run a positive campaign focused on bringing fresh ideas to city government.
The caveat to that, they agreed, is if opponents attacked them first. Some campaign materials casting a negative light on candidates has already been circulated, they said.
"If someone picks on me, I'm a street fighter," said Fred Ameri, who is running for the District 7 seat, which represents Newport Coast and Newport Ridge.
Roughly 50 community members filed into OCC's Robert B. Moore Theatre in an effort to learn about the candidates and where each stands on issues. Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia and former Daily Pilot Publisher Tom Johnson hosted the discussion, billed as being in a "talk show" format.
Newport voters will decide Nov. 8 who should fill the three available council seats.
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. District 5 Councilman Ed Selich is termed out this year.
Attorney and city Finance Committee member Will O'Neill, attorney Phil Greer and Ameri, a former planning commissioner, are running for the District 7 seat. Councilman Keith Curry, who currently represents the area, is termed out.
Harbor Commissioner Brad Avery and law student Shelley Henderson are running for District 2, which represents Newport Heights and Newport Crest. The district's current council member, Tony Petros, is not running for reelection.
Henderson, O'Neill, Avery and Lowrey did not attend Wednesday's forum.
Feet to the Fire came a day after the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce presented its own candidates forum.
Candidates in both discussions remained friendly with one another despite disagreeing on issues.
The conversation during both focused heavily on development in Newport Center and Banning Ranch, as well as alleviating traffic and paying down the city's $276-million unfunded pension liability, which attendees agreed are some of the most significant issues.
Venezia and Johnson, both Newport residents themselves, quizzed candidates on how they would plan to fund public art. The issue was discussed during the 2014 election, in which four new council members — Mayor Diane Dixon, Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon and Councilmen Marshall "Duffy" Duffield and Scott Peotter — were elected on a slate known as "Team Newport."
Some on the council have advocated for Newport's art programs to move away from city funds and instead become privately funded through donations.
Ameri and Glenn, while both emphasizing their appreciation for the arts, said they support the private funding model. Herdman said he supports spending city money toward the arts as long as other needs like infrastructure are also being met.
Greer, whose wife is a member of the city Arts Commission, said he would be open to other funding sources but that the city should be responsible for funding some public art.
"I really believe art is integral to the community," he said. "It gives it culture and it gives it character."
Herdman said the decision of where to spend city dollars often gets political.
"We need to take care of our infrastructure, our basic needs and address our debt," he said.
While the chamber-sponsored forum stuck to the issues, Feet to the Fire's discussion also touched on the report card of the current council and the state of politics in Newport.
Greer, Glenn, Herdman and Ameri said they have been disappointed with Team Newport's performance in the past two years.
Glenn, originally a supporter of many of Team Newport's ideas, said he was discouraged because he felt the group did not keep campaign promises such as protecting property rights or reducing costs and taxes.
"We got duped in that election," Glenn said. "That's why I'm running this time."
Candidates for the Costa Mesa City Council will take the stage at the Moore Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday for another edition of Feet to the Fire.