Column: Officials say Herdman leaked candidate information, but he says it wasn’t him. So who was it?

There’s a famous quote by Ben Franklin: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

So who didn’t keep the secret termed-out Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson possibly applied to become Newport Beach city manager?

The drama started back in April, when City Manager Dave Kiff learned some on the City Council wanted him to retire earlier than planned.

Newport Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, Councilmen Scott Peotter, Will O’Neill and Kevin Muldoon have denied pressuring Kiff to speed up his retirement, but I don’t really buy that.

Things turned ugly at a special council meeting Monday morning to interview three of the top contenders for Kiff’s job — prompted by the leak of Nelson’s name last Friday afternoon.

Audience members chanted, “Vote them out,” after Councilman Jeff Herdman’s unsuccessful motion to table the hiring process until after the November election didn’t get a second.

“I was honestly amazed by the intense chanting that then took place,” Herdman said in a statement. “It appears to me that a revolution has been launched!”

When I first read the flurry of emails over the weekend by folks outraged over the possibility that Nelson was being considered, I found him an odd choice at best.

Nelson had just made an unsuccessful bid for the 39th Congressional District seat in the June primary. He previously attempted to change term limits for supervisors, which didn’t go over well, as many felt his motivation was self-serving.

Nelson and his chief of staff penned an explanation for their proposal in 2016, according to an article in the Voice of OC.

“Forcing an individual out of office after eight years of service (as is current practice) only diminishes a Supervisor’s and his/her staff’s ability to capitalize on the years of education and experience to achieve significant and sustained reforms on behalf of Orange County taxpayers,” according to the proposal.

This all indicated to me that Nelson’s goals in public service included higher political aspirations. A city manager position — a job Nelson has never held — isn’t generally a stepping stone in that direction. City managers are administrators, not makers of political policy like a member of the Board of Supervisors.

Couple that with the fact he’s an attorney, which can often — but not always — be more lucrative than being a city manager and the whole thing just doesn’t add up.

Line in the Sand, a political action committee, sent an email blast encouraging folks to attend the Monday meeting and “join the many others who are taking this opportunity to voice their concerns about the way the council majority is handling the city manager recruitment/replacement process and the consequences the politically-motivated appointment of an unqualified person could have for our home town … ”

The email included a link to comments on the situation and, as you can imagine, they weren’t positive.

Herdman posted his own message urging residents to attend, saying he would do his best “to ensure that the finalist for the position is qualified.”

“Two out of the three finalists that will be interviewed on Monday are outstanding,” he wrote. “The third is not, however, I fear that this candidate may be the council majority’s favored candidate, and to be honest with you, I am losing sleep, as well as quite disturbed about this possibility.”

At the meeting, Herdman found himself in the crosshairs of his fellow council members and City Attorney Aaron Harp, who accused him of violating the state’s open meeting law, the Brown Act.

“His statement violated the confidentiality he agreed to uphold and contained a number of inaccurate statements,” Harp read from a prepared statement.

When I spoke to Herdman Tuesday morning he denied being the leak.

“I hadn’t even told my wife who the finalists were,” he said. “I have never in my entire career ever breached a confidentiality agreement.”

And Herdman’s statement never mentioned Nelson’s name.

Later that day, in another posting to constituents, and again not mentioning Nelson by name, Herdman explained in the initial interview with “this candidate I knew absolutely nothing about him other than what I had read on his resume … based on his performance during the interview I did vote to place him in the top three for a second interview.”

“As a result of this leak I began receiving e-mails and face-to-face comments from people encouraging me to not consider this individual for the position,” he wrote.

After doing some “fact checking myself,” he concluded, “this individual was no longer a viable candidate.”

So if Herdman’s’ not the leak, who is?

It’s not uncommon for those seeking any position to call influential friends, asking them to put in a good word.

And you know how people love to talk in this town.

Could Nelson have inadvertently — and innocently — leaked his own name?

He wasn’t available for comment, but his chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau, told me, “I haven’t heard him speak to anyone about it.”

Nevertheless, Harp and the council should do a deep dive into this question since Herdman adamantly denies leaking.

BARBARA VENEZIA is an opinion columnist writing political and social commentary since 2007. She can be reached at