City spending, absent candidates draw criticism at Newport council forum

Newport Beach City Council candidates fielded questions on a range of issues, from the budget to Measure Y, at the ninth Feet to the Fire Forum Wednesday night.

But the empty seats next to them may have taken the most heat.

Early in the debate, the four candidates onstage at the Oasis Senior Center — Mike Toerge, Mayor Rush Hill, Tim Brown and Roy Englebrecht — took aim at the three candidates who were absent: Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, Scott Peotter and Kevin Muldoon.

“I think it’s a real slap in the face to the other candidates,” said Englebrecht, a fight promoter who is vying with Brown and Muldoon for the District 4 seat. “It’s a slap in the face to all ... residents of Newport Beach.”

Hill, the only incumbent running for reelection, accused the absent candidates of being idealogues beholden to partisan operatives. All three are represented by conservative political consultant Dave Ellis and collectively agreed not to attend the debate, Peotter told Venezia.

“They’re attempting to overthrow this council to pursue philosophies,” Hill said. “We’re nonpartisan problem-solvers.”

Duffield, Hill’s opponent in District 3, is closely aligned with Bob McCaffrey, who led the fight against the city’s moves to increase fees for docks over public tidelands.

McCaffrey also has been a vocal critic of the city’s spending, derisively referring to the new Civic Center as the “Taj Mahal.”

Even two years later, the nearly $140 million project, which also included a library expansion, a parking garage and a park, proved divisive at the forum.

While Hill saw it as a worthy expenditure that contributes to local quality of life, Englebrecht called the project an example of the city’s “out-of-control” spending.

Brown and Toerge said they supported the project overall but certain features were larger and pricier than necessary.

“I think it’s symbolic to people who don’t believe government should be big,” said Brown, former board chairman of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.

So how big should government be? And how should that be determined? Candidates took a philosophical approach to those questions.

Englebrecht vowed that if elected, he would reduce city staff by 10% in his first year in office, then an additional 5% the following year. High staffing levels and overtime are “tearing the city apart,” he said.

Hill countered that the city is “very efficient and effective” and that residents value the high-quality services and amenities the city provides.

Toerge, a former planning commissioner who is running against Peotter in District 6, said “the fundamental purpose of government is to provide the best services possible at the best price possible.”

In Newport, he said, that could mean looking at sharing or outsourcing lesser-used public-safety resources, such as SWAT teams.

Brown, a former parks, beaches and recreation commissioner, said he would make the city’s fees more transparent and tie them more closely to actual costs, rather than use other cities for comparisons.

Another issue facing Newport voters is Measure Y, a controversial ballot item on whether to change the city’s general plan to allow increased development potential in some areas of the city while decreasing it in others.

Critics of the measure say it would increase traffic, especially through Corona del Mar, while supporters say that, by garnering development fees, it would help fund traffic mitigation in the future.

Englebrecht compared Measure Y to a Watergate-style coverup that masks the city’s kowtowing to private developers.

Brown said he supports the measure for its potential to have a net mitigating effect on traffic.

Hill said he supports the measure as a way to plan for more walkable development around Newport Center.

Toerge said that although he was “originally opposed” as a planning commissioner, changes to the measure at the council level convinced him it would be helpful.

“I still don’t understand Measure Y,” someone in the audience said as the crowd of about 60 local officials and residents dispersed at the end of the forum.

The event was moderated by Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia, with Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis, Voice of O.C. Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr. and Orange County Register columnist Jack Wu asking questions.

Candidate Diane Dixon, who is running unopposed in District 1, led the Pledge of Allegiance but did not debate.