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Barbara Venezia: Political maneuvering has begun already

As 2015 begins, it's already shaping up to be an interesting political year in Newport Beach.

City Councilman Ed Selich received a nod for a third time as mayor, but as with everything in politics these days, there's a backstory.

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Now that "Team Newport" — Marshall Duffield, Scott Peotter, Diane Dixon and Kevin Muldoon — hold the majority on the council, their original choice for the mayoral slot was Councilman Tony Petros.

Petros says that as he met with each new council person, there was a suggestion that he entertain the possibility of being mayor.

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"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 Ed," Petros said.

Peotter explained further: "We were looking for him to chart a middle course. He didn't seem to be all that wild about the idea. Ed jumped all over it and gave us specifics about how he would do it."

Selich says he too met with each new council person, but not to talk about being mayor, just to discuss their ideas moving forward.

Peotter says Selich was a good choice because he would bring the "newbies and the experienced guys together" and felt he wasn't carrying an agenda from "the old council."

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So why not make Petros mayor pro tem instead of first-time council member Dixon?

Titles of mayor and mayor pro tem are ceremonial positions in Newport. Traditionally, council members gain the respect of their peers over time to receive these honors. With no track record behind her, Dixon is an unlikely choice based on that alone.

Petros, with two years on the council, seemed the more likely one.

"I have heard from a number of people in town that they are disappointed that I am not in a leadership position," Petros told me.

But the snub doesn't seem to have bothered Petros. We talked about it this week and he was upbeat and focused on the future with his new colleagues.

I asked what he thought of Peotter's pledge to remove the playground set fashioned as bunnies on the City Hall grounds.

Petros says the whole bunny controversy is "silly," explaining that the city would've spent the same money on any playground equipment; the bunny-shaped ones were just a more creative way of doing it.

Peotter stands firm on bunny removal, since he considers them a symbol of the city's "excess" — his word, not mine.

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And he says that once they're gone, he won't support replacing them with other play equipment.

Peotter's "having fun with the controversy" but isn't spending a lot of time on it, he says.

He's weighing several suggestions as to what to do with the bunnies.

One would be to have local artists donate their time decorating them and then auction them, with the proceeds going to the city's Arts Commission. He even hints this might become an annual fundraising event.

Peotter assured me he's not a "bunny hater" and has heard from both sides of the issue.

But is all this hoopla over Bunnygate overshadowing more important issues that he hopes to move forward with this year?

"If we're still having this discussion next year, then I would be concerned," he joked.

During our conversation we talked about many things — one being City Hall, which he continues to refer to as the "Taj Mahal."

He used the term throughout his campaign — but campaign season is over.

So I asked for his response to those who might consider his continued reference disrespectful, considering he's now a councilman.

"I really don't have an answer to that. It's just the Taj to me," he said.

Peotter says he's looking forward to taking the city in a more fiscally responsible and transparent direction. That's why he supports reinventing the city's finance committee, with one member appointed by each council member. He also wants to hold the meetings in the evening rather than daytime to make them more accessible for the public.

Another item on his team's agenda is an audit of the City Hall building project. Though he doesn't think anyone "absconded with money," he believes it would show what went wrong and who let it happen. He says he's willing to spend up to $100,000 on the audit.

He also wants Newport to eventually become debt-free but that it can move forward with projects in the meantime. They would just be financed differently.

My sense in talking to Peotter, Selich and Petros is that they all look forward to working together cohesively.

And as Petros pointed out, Newport has continued to thrive and survive for 108 years, no matter who's been at the helm.

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

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