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Candidates debate business ties, harsh letter at West Newport forum

The mayor and a councilman declining to answer questions about whether they have a business relationship and a recent letter written by a political backer is the talk of the town as the Newport City Council race progresses into fall.

First up, tongues were wagging at the West Newport Beach Assn. candidates forum last week over a recent letter to the editor by Bob McCaffrey, volunteer chairman of Residents for Reform.

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In the letter, which appeared in StuNewsNewport and the Newport Beach Independent, McCaffrey likened activists Susan Skinner and Lynn Swain and candidate Joy Brenner to Pavlov’s dogs.

I find what he wrote so offensive that I’m not even going to quote his detailed descriptions.

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McCaffrey, a leading supporter of council members Scott Peotter, Kevin Muldoon, Diane Dixon and Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield for reelection, means big bucks to their campaigns.

The dilemma these candidates face is weighing money over morality.

In the era of #MeToo and gender equality, no woman, regardless of political views, should be subjected to this kind of bullying and be compared to drooling dogs.

It took candidate Roy Englebrecht at the West Newport forum to push this issue.

Though Muldoon said he tries to be “respectful and civil,” and doesn’t agree with what McCaffrey wrote, he didn’t go as far as to distance himself from McCaffrey. Muldoon did, however, criticize the letter, disagreeing with its contents at the forum.

And when Brenner asked Peotter if he would talk to McCaffrey about not engaging in this kind of rhetoric, he stated, “I don’t think anybody tells Bob what to do.”

I was especially interested in Dixon’s response since she’s positioned herself as an advocate for women in politics as founder of the Women in Networking forums.

“I deplore personal attacks and disparaging comments against anyone, woman or man,” Dixon told me. “Such uncivil comments have no place in our election campaign process. Such comments are beneath the people of Newport Beach. We are better than that.”

It will be interesting to see who shows up at the planned fundraiser McCaffrey is holding at his home for Peotter Sept. 13. Duffield, businessman Buck Johns and county Supervisor Michelle Steel are listed on the invitation as members of the host committee.

“I was not planning to attend the event regardless,” Dixon said.

But when I asked if her fellow incumbents attend, and continue to take support from McCaffrey, will she rethink her endorsements of them, she didn’t answer.

I also reached out to McCaffrey by phone and email, asking him to explain his Pavlovian metaphor, and didn’t hear back. He is said to be out of town.

Speaking of not answering questions, Duffield should have answered when his opponent, Tim Stoaks, asked him if he’d ever employed Peotter while both have been on the council.

Duffield refused.

“I don’t subscribe to this type of questioning,” he said.

Stoaks, who, in the spirit of disclosure, is a neighbor and friend of mine, wasn’t the first person to wonder about Duffield and Peotter’s alleged business ties.

Skinner wrote Aug. 19 to City Attorney Aaron Harp and asked whether it would be a conflict of interest if the two did, in fact, have a business relationship of some kind.

“This becomes especially problematic as Mr. Duffield has been conflicted out by the FPPC (Fair Political Practices Commission) of dealing with many of the issues on the harbor, and Mr. Peotter has been advocating in his stead,” Skinner asserted.

Harp replied, “I do not have any documents or other evidence that Council Member Peotter has performed work for Mayor Duffield for compensation, how much compensation was received, if any, or the nature of the work, if any.”

On Aug. 21 I sent emails to both Peotter and Duffield asking them to deny or confirm whether they had a business relationship and explain the nature of it.

They never responded.

I asked Harp to weigh in, as a simple yes or no would end the controversy.

“I don’t think it is as simple as you make it sound,” Harp wrote Aug. 21.

“In general, our office does provide advice regarding these type of issues for Council Members if the advice is requested prior to the City Council’s consideration of a matter,” Harp wrote. “Any conversations of this nature are protected by the attorney client privilege so I can’t comment on these type of discussions, or even confirm or deny if there were any discussions.”

“Your inquiry primarily relates to past conduct,” he added. “The FPPC is the agency that looks into matters related to past conduct and you may want to check with them to see if they have any records related to this matter, because, as stated below, I do not. “

What does “past conduct” mean? And, if so, if it was handled properly, why avoid disclosing it to the community?

Get out in front of it, and it’s a nonissue. Instead, now Skinner’s filed a complaint with the FPPC.

The McCaffrey incident, and this investigation, all could have been avoided had common sense been applied to both situations.

Successful campaigns manage their message. The message I see Team Newport sending: They're a directionless mess.

Barbara Venezia is an opinion columnist writing political and social commentary since 2007. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com

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