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Race for mayor pro tem is riddled with politics

The political divide among Newport Beach City Council members is growing as the Dec. 8 meeting gets closer and Mayor Pro Tem Diane Dixon will likely become the next mayor.

But who'll be mayor pro tem?

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Speculation mounts that Councilman Tony Petros, who will be serving his fourth year on the council in 2016, won't get the nod that many feel he deserves. Instead, Councilman Kevin Muldoon seems to be the likely pick.

Petros was aced out of being mayor last year by the newly elected "Team Newport" — Marshall Duffield, Scott Peotter, Dixon and Muldoon — who held the majority on the council.

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I wrote about the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering then, as they originally approached Petros for the mayoral slot, then changed their collective mind.

Back then, after meeting with Team Newport members, Petros said, "They believe I balked and wasn't as forthcoming as they would've liked, so they chose not to pursue that and moved on to [Councilman Ed Selich]."

As more political juggling took place, Selich became Newport's mayor for the third time, which seemed a good compromise.

And with no track record, Dixon — newly elected and new to the community — became mayor pro tem, which was unprecedented.

Petros said he recently reached out to colleagues to let them know he was interested in moving into a leadership position.

"It became clear that Team Newport were going to make an aggressive move to stop this. They ran on a reform slate and I wasn't reform enough," he told me.

He said that when he called Dixon, it was a strange conversation.

"Her initial reaction was 'Kevin called me first' — as if it was a matter of who called her first," Petros said.

He said he told Dixon it's not about who calls first, it's about what's in the best interests of Newport Beach, and asked her to reconsider. He said Dixon held firm that she would back Team Newport's choice of Muldoon.

Petros said his efforts are not part of an ego trip.

"This is not about me," he said. "This is about maintaining the calm and balance in this community and continuing on a good path for residents and businesses."

Selich called Petros "eminently qualified to be mayor pro tem, given his work experience in governmental affairs and three years on the City Council."

Councilman Keith Curry agrees.

"Last year, Team Newport tried to leverage him, but Tony wouldn't play ball," Curry said. "It's unfortunate he is being passed over again."

I called Dixon three times to get her side of the story.

Her spokesman Roger Bloom told me she had no comment.

I've lost count of how many times this year Bloom has intervened when I've called Dixon for a comment — which raises red flags for me as a columnist. In all my years covering Newport/Costa Mesa politics, I've never had a council member dodge my calls like Dixon has.

After I told that to Bloom, she finally called.

I told her what has been said and asked her about Petros and her choice of Muldoon.

She said it was "inappropriate" for her to comment.

Really?

One thing I'll say about Selich, he's never shied away from an uncomfortable conversation — and we've had our share.

Though he wouldn't comment directly about Dixon's behavior here, he said he felt elected leaders should be available to answer questions posed by the press or the public, within the limits of the law, of course.

"I believe all council members need to give the public and press as straight and decisive an answer as possible, even when it does not please them. … In the long run they will respect you for being straight and decisive with them," he said.

Is Muldoon a good choice for mayor pro tem?

He certainly hasn't stood out on the council in his first year, other than to back Team Newport.

So why did Dixon shut out Petros?

One can only speculate at this point.

Oddly enough, she hasn't even completed her first year on the council, yet on Dec. 9 Dixon is holding a "Diane Dixon for Newport Beach City Council 2018" fundraiser at the Bungalow restaurant.

And will her support of the City Hall audit play well with the public now that the audit's estimated cost has gone from $100,000 to $300,000?

I'm sure I'll have many questions for Mayor Dixon in 2016. Wonder if I'll get any answers.

BARBARA VENEZIA, whose column appears Fridays, lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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