Newport Beach voters to be asked whether or not they want to choose their mayor

Voters make their ballot selections.
Voters make their ballot selections on Election Day 2020 at Newport Beach Civic Center. The “Elect Our Mayor” campaign will be heading to the upcoming primary election ballot in June.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Newport Beach voters will be deciding in June whether or not they want to elect their mayors, following a contentious, hours-long hearing and a close vote by the City Council on Tuesday night.

The council approved adding a charter amendment to the upcoming June primary in a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Brad Avery and Councilwomen Diane Dixon and Joy Brenner dissenting. The “Elect Our Mayor” ballot initiative was introduced to the general public in September.

The proposed charter amendment would make the City Council position of mayor an electable position along with other council seats. Currently, the role is largely ceremonial and the mayor is named by council members for a rotating, one-year term each December. The members of the council are voted in at-large, but represent specific districts.

If approved by voters in June, the existing practice will be abandoned and a mayor will be elected by the populace to serve a maximum of two, four-year terms. That person would not be able to run for a council seat after serving as mayor, according to Councilman Will O’Neill, who is spearheading the campaign.

To get the item on the ballot, O’Neill and his volunteers would have been required to gather 9,000 verifiable signatures from Newport Beach voters. That is no longer necessary with the council action taken Tuesday night.

O’Neill said in a text Wednesday that volunteers were on track to meet their original goal, but that they would now pivot to a campaign.

Councilman Noah Blom said during the meeting that he brought the matter to the council dais because he saw contention rising within the city on the idea of electing a mayor.

“Most people that aren’t involved in politics in this city think we actually elect our mayor. They don’t know that it’s just appointed up here on the dais. I didn’t before I ran for City Council,” said Blom. "... but the truth is when the city’s running beautifully and wonderfully, that’s not the biggest concern. The biggest concern is your family, your business, your community.

“I love how many letters came in on both sides of this. It was amazing to see the bubbles pull up in our emails ... but they were the same on either side,” said Blom. “Everyone had an opinion on something like this and when everyone has an opinion on something, it makes me realize then that we should all have an opinion.”

Residents spoke for at least two hours on the item, but responses to the decision to the ballot measure was evenly split on both sides. Some argued in favor of putting the item to the ballot, maintaining that if residents objected to it that it wouldn’t pass and the matter would be put to rest. Others said they felt there wasn’t a need for it and some objected to the current writing of the measure as written.

Dixon said she and other members of the council received a number of letters arguing the issue from both sides.

“A common thread running through all this discussion tonight is ‘Let our voices be heard and let’s vote.’ I could not agree more emphatically, but let’s be informed on what we are voting on,” said Dixon, who argued for transparency. She said the wording of the measure hadn’t been weighed in on by members of the public. “Lock, stock and barrel — this proposed change is set in concrete. No change, no alteration, no public input on the content.”

Dixon added that she did not feel the “Elect Our Mayor” initiative was from a “groundswell of community activism” like the Greenlight Initiative, which was passed in 2000. She made a motion to halt the item and create a citizen’s committee for general city charter reform, including the direct election of the mayor.

Brenner agreed with Dixon, saying she doesn’t feel the proposed measure is ready to appear on a ballot.

If the measure passes next year with the majority of Newport Beach voters choosing to directly vote for mayor, city spokesman John Pope said the mayoral election would then take place in November 2024. The filing period would be expected to open in July and close in August 2024, the same such window for council elections.

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