Column: Newport could learn a thing or two from Costa Mesa about political activism

Voters make their selections during a Newport Beach general municipal election in 2014.
(File Photo)

For those wondering where my column’s been, I’ve been on a self-imposed hiatus since October, as I worked on two developing television projects.

It’s not the first time I’ve been approached to write TV show treatments to sell new series.

This time I was intrigued by the celebrities attached to the concepts and the stories these shows would tell.

Though I can’t say much more about the projects, I’m happy to be back to local political-watching, and there’s been a lot to watch in 2018.

In the 11 years I’ve been covering local politics in Newport and Costa Mesa, this council election season has been one for the record books.

What were my observations?

I’ve felt for a long time that Costa Mesa voters were far more sophisticated and engaged in the political process than their neighbors in Newport.

2018 proved that once again.

Costa Mesans continued to clean house.

Historically, this city votes out incumbents residents feel don’t serve their needs. We saw that again this past election.

Not so much in Newport. With the exception of electing Joy Brenner, who beat Councilman Scott Peotter, voters didn’t move the needle of change much in their city.

Though the jury was out on how district elections would work for Costa Mesa, I think it changed the political landscape for the better. Newport could learn a thing or two here.

Costa Mesa candidates running in their district only had to campaign within that area, not citywide, which is the case in Newport.

District races in Costa Mesa made campaign fundraising more affordable and opened the door of opportunity to fresh faces and ideas.

Costa Mesa now has the youngest councilman, and first Latino, in its history with Manuel Chavez.

And with the election of Councilwomen Andrea Marr and Arlis Reynolds, joining newly elected Mayor Katrina Foley and remaining Councilwoman Sandy Genis, there are more women on council than ever before.

Watching Marr and Reynolds during Feet to the Fire in September they impressed me as being strong-willed, smart and articulate.

Though they ran in alignment with Foley, it will be interesting to see if Foley will temper her behavior as mayor. Her detractors say her “aggressive” style when dealing with city staff and other council members — a characterization she denies and calls a fabrication by political opponents — created the political split between her and Genis. This is why Genis says she turned on her and voted her out as mayor.

My guess is that sort of behavior — if accurately described — wouldn’t sit well with Marr and Reynolds.

Voting for mayor was a good change for Costa Mesa, rather than having the council appoint one of its own, which is still the practice in Newport.

Of course the race in Newport that everyone’s talking about was between Tim Stoaks and Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield.

That was a doozy!

Stoaks, who is a neighbor and personal friend of mine, was the frontrunner on election night.

Twenty-one days later the tides changed with Duffield leading Stoaks by 22 votes.

On Nov. 30 the final count came in from the OC Registrar of Voters: Duffield, 18,458, Stoaks 18,422. Stoaks lost by just 36 votes.

This was a horse race with a near 50/50 split.

Since election night Stoaks has continued to say he was “cautiously optimistic” because there were 480,264 votes countywide to be counted after election night. That number included 123,195 provisional ballots.

What are provisional ballots?

“A provisional ballot is a regular ballot that is placed in a special envelope prior to being put in the ballot box,” and are counted after election night, according to the California secretary of state website.

Provisional ballots are generally:

  • Cast by first-time voters who might not be able to provide proof of identification.
  • Vote-by-mail voters who appear in person at polling places.
  • Folks who’ve moved within the county without re-registering to vote.
  • Or those whose names didn’t appear on their polling place’s rosters for some unknown reason.

Looking at the more in-depth description of these circumstances on the Secretary of State website, it’s easy to see where there could be some margin of error with these ballots.
With a race this close, I predict there will be a call for a recount. Community activist Susan Skinner is calling for one.

Statistically in these recounts, if errors are found, and/or ballots challenged, it is usually within the provisional ballots.

Recounts can cost upward of $20,000, depending on the number of ballots to be counted.

Interested parties have five days to challenge the results from Nov. 30.

So it’s possible this isn’t over yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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