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Can Toerge carry the recall torch now that Brenner is out of the running?

Can Toerge carry the recall torch now that Brenner is out of the running?
Newport Beach City Council candidate Mike Toerge, seen here in 2014, may run as a potential replacement for Councilman Scott Peotter, if Peotter is recalled. (Scott Smeltzer | Daily Pilot)

Who is, and who isn't, ready to rumble with recall this summer?

As the political temperature rises in Newport, the recall process of Councilman Scott Peotter took another step forward this week when City Clerk Leilani Brown approved the recall petition.

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"The petition format is sufficient," she wrote to proponents.

The Committee to Recall Scott Peotter can now start gathering the approximately 8,500 signatures needed in the next five months to bring a recall vote.

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Symbolically, what happens here is a game-changer, regardless of who prevails.

If the recall is successful, it sends a message to council members and their power brokers that there are consequences when the voice of the people is ignored.

If this fails, Peotter and his supporters both on and off the council become stronger than ever.

But like any good summer mini-series, this recall is already presenting unexpected twists and intrigue.

As I reported back in April, if signature-gathering successfully leads to a vote, residents will be asked if they want to remove Peotter, and, if yes, choose someone to replace him.

Mike Toerge, who lost to Peotter in 2014, is still a candidate if Peotter is recalled, but apparently Friends of the Corona del Mar Library chairwoman Joy Brenner isn't any longer.

Back in April, Brenner was enthusiastic, saying she felt "compelled" to serve and had been urged by friends and neighbors to run for office for decades.

This week she's singing a different tune.

"It is with a huge sense of relief and some sadness that I have to announce my decision NOT to run for Newport Beach City Council," she said in an email to supporters.

Brenner did some "soul searching, and with so many dear friends battling illnesses, I feel like I need to make the most of whatever time I have left. I still have traveling to do and many other things."

Though I respect Brenner's reasons, I wasn't convinced it was the whole story.

Unfortunately, I've seen it before, that moment when a potential candidate realizes the depth of the ugliness ahead, how negative politics is in this town, and concludes they want no part of it.

When Brenner and I spoke, she admitted this weighed greatly on her decision. She just couldn't see herself in that kind of fight.

Brenner still supports the recall effort and is hoping someone else will throw their hat into the ring.

But with Brenner bailing, this changes the dynamics of the recall's success, in my opinion.

I've heard from more than a few in town who feel that as much as they dislike Peotter, they're not crazy about longtime planning commissioner Toerge either. And faced with a choice between the two, they'd stay with the devil they know, so to speak.

Some aren't convinced Toerge opposes high-density development, a divisive issue in town with Museum House and other issues. Though he says he now opposes new high-density, he supported Measure Y, a failed initiative that would have allowed more large development at Newport Center, in the 2014 election.

Many saw Brenner's entry into the recall race as a welcome alternative.

Now that she's out, I feel that unless the recall committee attracts other candidates, betting the farm on Toerge might be a fatal mistake.

If an alternate candidate, who is a longtime resident, well-respected and without political baggage, doesn't jump in over the summer, I don't see this recall effort being successful.

On the flip side, in Peotter's camp, he continues to send out his email blasts using a photo of the city seal and stating the email isn't official city business.

He's been reprimanded before for using the seal, but I guess he's technically within the rules by using a "photo" and the "unofficial" label to make it clear his missives aren't from City Hall.

But this is just another example of a guy exhibiting behavior unbecoming his office.

In this latest blast, May 15, he claims the "Recall is being used to Stifle Free Speech."

"Seems as though the Recallers are trying to intimidate me and others by using the recall to scare us into inaction," he writes. "They have even said that they can't let me vote on another budget. They really can't have me stopping their tax-and-spend ways."

From where I sit, this whole recall is not about stifling speech, spending or scare tactics.

Simply stated, there's a growing section of the community who may not like the councilman's behavior or opinions, but, more importantly, disagree with his vision for the city, especially when it comes to high-density development.

In interviews with recall committee members, I've never heard anyone once say Peotter isn't entitled to his views; they just don't agree with where he's taking this city.

So is a difference of opinion really censorship?

Or is this recall merely a civic way to hit the reset button when enough constituents disagree with whom they elected?

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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