Newport Beach has formed a City Council committee to study potential reforms to local campaign finance rules without seating a councilman who has been vocal on the topic.
Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill and council members Brad Avery and Joy Brenner — but not Jeff Herdman — will sit on the committee, which will determine which, if any, provisions of the city elections code should be modified.
“The community is expecting a thorough and complete job to be done on this work and I have researched, studied and I am prepared to do this work, and I have been for several years, but I’m being deprived of doing so,” Herdman said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “A decision has been made to exclude me and it just isn’t right.”
Herdman’s watchdog activities on campaign finance include a series of allegations he lodged in 2015 — a year before he was elected to the council — with the California Fair Political Practices Commission against then-Councilman Scott Peotter and a political action committee that supported Peotter. The FPPC oversees campaign finance practices for state and local elections.
Herdman’s complaints launched an investigation that implicated all four members of the successful “Team Newport” slate of 2014 council candidates — Peotter and current council members Diane Dixon, Kevin Muldoon and Marshall “Duffy” Duffield — in alleged fundraising disclosure violations. They and their campaign manager and treasurer are negotiating a settlement with the FPPC.
Herdman also has been on the other side of the coin. The FPPC fined him $200 in 2016 for failing to submit a mandatory form before soliciting and accepting donations. It is currently investigating him over a resident’s complaint that he omitted required identifying language in recent email newsletters.
Dixon, who selected the committee members, said Herdman could submit his research, but she said she chose Avery, O’Neill and Brenner because their campaigns have not had FPPC interactions.
“They are objective, impartial and independent and I trust that they can give due diligence to considering ways to strengthen — underline, boldface strengthen — our campaign and election and lobbying laws where needed and report back to the council with their recommendations,” Dixon said.
The council voted 6-1 on the membership, with Herdman dissenting.
Resident Jennifer McDonald spoke in support of Herdman, saying his complaints about Team Newport were “an act of love for the city” qualifying him to chair a reform committee. The current complaint against him involves trivial matters, she said.
“He campaigned on election reform and the residents are counting on him to deliver it,” McDonald said.
Bob Rush, who is behind the current complaint against Herdman, said the misdeeds he alleged are “not trivial. It’s law.”
Lynn Lorenz read the council a letter signed by 50 residents backing Herdman.
“The real concern for us is that Team Newport controls five of seven council seats … and can use that majority to deny those who have challenged them the chance to serve on committees that will impact future elections,” she said. “This campaign finance reform committee is only one example.”
Avery and O’Neill used Team Newport’s campaign consultant, Dave Ellis, in their 2016 council runs but were not part of a slate.
Herdman said he wants reform to focus on enforcement, fundraising, slate mailer committees and local lobbyist registration.
“Laws that cannot be enforced invite abuse, and that is clearly the case here in our city when it comes to election codes and ordinances and has been since 2014,” he said.
Avery said he understands Herdman’s disappointment but thinks he, Brenner and O’Neill have a good grasp of the issue.
“There’s some distrust apparently of me and that’s not fun to hear, but I get it. Optics do matter,” Avery said. “But I’ve done my best over the last two years to represent the city the fairest way that I possibly can, and I think that’s reflected in my votes.”
In 2017, then-Mayor Muldoon named Herdman to a version of an election reform committee that never met. That incarnation also included Dixon and Peotter.
“It would be wrong for me to steer a subject matter that’s currently going on with my campaign,” Muldoon said in explaining why he thinks Herdman shouldn’t be on the new panel. “To be honest, I’m surprised that people aren’t acknowledging the wisdom in that. That [one could] steer or perhaps steer away from yourself consequences that your campaign could be facing — I find that to be shocking, unethical, not transparent and corrupt.”