Tony Petros waited a long time to make his break into politics.
The 52-year-old businessman and incoming Newport Beach District 2 City Councilman said his wife, Kristen Caspers Petros, didn't want him to take the plunge — so he didn't.
"Her father was a local politician," Petros said, perched on a stool at a bustling Kean Coffee on 17th Street Monday afternoon. "He was the chair of the [Orange County] Board of Supervisors — Ron Caspers — and because of that, she didn't want me in politics. I honored my wife's wish, and I didn't get involved in politics, which [was something] I actually wanted for a long, long time."
But now, with one daughter off at college and the second applying to schools, the Huntington Beach native and longtime Newport-Mesa area resident has his chance.
"It's perfect, now that it's just me and Kristen," he said. "She finally said, 'It's OK; now it's time.'"
While Petros, who is unopposed in Tuesday's election to replace termed-out Councilman Steve Rosansky, has never held elected public office, he's dipped a toe or two into the local political pool.
When he lived in Costa Mesa years ago, he served on the Girl Scouts of Orange County board, police and redevelopment committees, and as the Chamber of Commerce chairman.
In Newport, he counts his work as president of the Environmental Nature Center, where he secured $1.2 million in grant funding for a new LEED Platinum-certified facility, as a particular accomplishment, along with progress in raising awareness for road safety as a member of the city's Bicycle Safety Committee. He's also been a member of the West Newport Neighborhood Revitalization Committee and the West Newport Beach Assn.
In his professional life, including as a partner in the Irvine-based firm, LSA Associates, Petros said he's worked with various municipalities throughout the state on transportation planning projects.
In other words, Petros is no stranger to civic issues, he said, but,
"Now these issues are particular to Newport Beach, so I'm having to learn a great deal. But the function and structure of local government, I've had a lot of experience with and understand."
That experience, Councilman Rush Hill said, will fill a unique niche on the council.
"It seems like everyone has a particular expertise," he said. "With Newport's constant focus in working to move traffic through town as well as we can, Tony's going to be a go-to person on the council. He understands the impact planning can have on a city."
Added Rosansky: "He's spent a lot of time working with governmental agencies over the years — the county, [the Orange County Transportation Authority]."
As the District 2 representative, Petros will play a key role in guiding the construction of two parks, Marina Park and Sunset Ridge Park, and the development of Banning Ranch, Rosansky said.
Councilwoman Leslie Daigle said that because Hoag Hospital is in District 2, "maintaining a strong relationship" with the hospital, one of the city's biggest employers, is important. She, too, cited Petros's extensive experience working with governmental agencies as an asset.
"He has good comprehension of how governments process things," she said.
So – beyond transportation infrastructure – what does Petros see as the top issue facing the city?
Public employee pensions, of course.
"Here's the dynamic," Petros said. "We are clearly at a point of unsustainability in terms of the compensation that's afforded to a lot of our employees. However, the people of Newport Beach enjoy and expect platinum-level service."
That means residents need to be prepared for cuts in other areas, such as library services or parks budgets.
"It's a zero-sum game," he said. "It's got to come from somewhere."
He said Newport's methods of cutting pension obligations have separated it from the vitriol that's characterized similar negotiations in other cities.
Asked about the situation in Costa Mesa, he said, "I think it's best to stay out of the neighbors' business."
"When you look at what they're trying to accomplish and what we've already accomplished in Newport, we've made huge strides in compensation reform and in outsourcing key services," he added, "but you don't hear the acrimony."
The Newport council at its last meeting passed an ordinance approving changes to police, lifeguard and firefighter pensions that would reduce the city's funding obligations. The changes had already been agreed upon by affected groups.
Petros said other priorities include getting the ball rolling on westside neighborhood revitalization efforts. Eastside developments, including the new Civic Center, are "excellent," he said, but "here on the westside — the Peninsula, the Heights, you know we need the same level of attention."
Although his ideas aren't fully formed without necessary public input, he said he hopes to implement changes that will help "soften" the boundaries between commercial and residential districts, particularly in Balboa Village.
"[In Newport] you have commercial use right up against residential use, and a lot of times there's compatibility issues, so some of the things that I would like to ... explore are how I can use the zoning code enforcement and other instruments to soften those edges."
Lighting districts to keep residents from being affected by glare at night, landscape buffers and parking permits, Petros said, could all be solutions.
As for some of the issues making waves in Newport recently, Petros's positions largely align with ones the current council has taken.
He's in favor of Measure EE, which would make 38 amendments to the city charter. The changes were vetted by City Manager Dave Kiff, "the guy who uses [the charter] most," and were subjected to an appropriate level of public scrutiny, Petros said.
Opponents' arguments that 38 is too many changes to a document that has been likened to the city's constitution for one vote, Petros dismissed as "specious at best" — although the West Newport Beach Assn. has recommended against voting for the measure.
Rent and fee increases for public tidelands use are necessary and mandated by the state, he said, but a more cooperative approach to the fee increases might have prevented some of the outcry.
"It's not a money grab. We're obligated to do this," he said. "And once this is behind us, I think the city ought to immediately roll into 'OK, now as good stewards of the tidelands areas, what are our obligations and what are we committed to do to make it a good place so that those commercial folks can continue to do business and prosper, and so visitors can continue to come here.'"
Petros said good, forward-thinking stewardship of the environment — and the bay especially — is key to Newport's success as a city, and that everyone who uses it should shoulder costs to keep it pristine.
About 80 years ago, he said, "some men and women with some foresight took the bull by the horns [and] built a cool thing called Balboa Island, Lido Island, all that we have out there now. And we've enjoyed it."
Petros continued, "We've been the beneficiaries of that for a very long time, so maybe now it's our turn to have the courage and foresight."