Proposed Newport Beach ballot measure seeks to let voters decide their mayor

Evelyn Hart, right, administers the oath of office for Brad Avery during a swearing in ceremony in December 2020.
Evelyn Hart, right, administers the oath of office for Brad Avery while his wife Julie Clevenger holds a bible during a swearing in ceremony for Newport Beach City Council members on Dec. 8, 2020. Newport Beach voters may soon be able to decide who their mayor is, depending on the success of a proposed ballot measure brought forward this week.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Newport Beach voters may soon be able to decide who their mayor is, depending on the success of a proposed ballot measure brought forward this week by Councilman Will O’Neill.

The campaign, dubbed “Elect Our Mayor,” seeks to make the City Council position of mayor an electable position along with other council seats. Currently, City Council members each represent a district of Newport Beach, but are voted in at-large.

Council members then decide among themselves at the end of every year who will be mayor for a rotating, one-year term.

The ballot measure, if approved by voters, would change the existing practice to allow the elected mayor to serve a maximum of two four-year terms. That person would not be allowed to run for a position on the council after their mayoral term ends, to ensure new ideas and leadership, O’Neill said.

Neighboring Costa Mesa votes in their mayors, while other coastal cities including Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and Fountain Valley circulate the position among themselves.

The notice of intent for the ballot measure was filed and received by the Newport Beach city clerk’s office on Friday, city staff confirmed.

“Fundamentally, the role of mayor is both figurehead leader of the city, but also they help run the meetings,” said O’Neill. “This ballot measure doesn’t propose to make a strong mayor system the way you’d have in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where they’re separate from the city council, but it does try to create a system with more longevity.

“It also asks people to go sell their vision to voters to make sure that the voters are aligned with that particular vision,” O’Neill continued. “That way we have a consistent message, a consistent and steady hand at leadership rather than a rotating annual basis where [by the time] someone gets good at running a meeting, they’re no longer running a meeting.”

O’Neill said the impetus for the ballot measure came upon some reflection on what happened during his year as mayor in 2020.

“There was a one in seven chance that I would have been mayor in 2020. Any other one of my fellow council members could have been mayor and probably would have handled a lot of the situations [last year] differently,” said O’Neill.

“I was reflecting on that and realized, in situations as difficult as last year, it would have made a lot more sense for our electorate to choose the vision for their city rather than kind of luck into one particular person with a skill set for the moment that they’re in,” he said.

He then reached out to the public to see their thoughts. Not a single person he spoke to objected to voting for mayor, he said.

Early feedback on the ballot measure’s social media channels have been largely positive about the proposal.

Ruth Sanchez-Kobayashi, who is represented by Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon in District 4, said she was supportive of the measure because she liked the idea of the city’s mayor being more of a deliberate decision than a random one. She heard about the campaign through O’Neill’s Instagram page.

“I also think that just a one-year term as mayor is pretty short. There’s some risk involved if you don’t like a mayor, but the benefits far outweigh the risks involved,” said Sanchez-Kobayashi. “It seems like a much more professional way to run the City Council.”

Restaurateur Mario Marovic, who lives in Corona del Mar and is represented by Councilwoman Joy Brenner, said he feels many residents don’t know that they don’t elect their mayor and that the process of deciding on one is confusing.

“Newport Beach is a very prominent city and has one of the highest property values in California ... we have a population of [85,000] people and a city of Newport’s stature should have a properly elected mayor by the people and the mayor should not be elected by other council members,” said Marovic, adding that he felt some council members might have ulterior motives as to why one individual couldn’t be mayor over the others.

He said mayors are mostly figureheads, but an elected mayor would carry more weight with the title.

“There’s ribbon cuttings and, obviously, you lead the city council meetings and you’re able to direct those meetings but aside from that, how much can a mayor get done in one year versus four years?” said Marovic.

Requests for comment to all current council members were not immediately responded to by press time.

Now that the notice of intent has been filed, Newport Beach City Atty. Aaron Harp will have 15 days to produce a ballot title and summary, which then must be published in a news publication before the campaign can begin in earnest.

Volunteers will then need to collect 9,000 verifiable signatures from Newport Beach voters within 180 days of the publish date.

If that is accomplished, the ballot measure will then be before Newport Beach voters in June 2022.

“I know I will be relying on a lot of people for help on this,” said O’Neill. “There’s no way one person can get 9,000 signatures. I’m counting on volunteer effort on this.”

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