Column: Is Newport city manager retiring, resigning or being fired?

Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff
(File Photo)

Retiring, exiting early, fired — semantics are playing out in the next phase of the political drama in Newport Beach regarding City Manager Dave Kiff.

On March 26, I wrote that Kiff allegedly was being pressured by the ruling majority of the City Council to leave his position before his originally planned retirement in mid-2019. Kiff announced March 25 that he plans to exit later this year.

Residents who attended the council meeting March 27 shared their support for Kiff and outrage over what allegedly was happening.

City Attorney Aaron Harp said Newport Mayor Marshall Duffield “asked to have a sixth amended and restated employment agreement for Mr. Kiff placed on the agenda for the next City Council meeting” on Tuesday.

Kiff’s departure is imminent and nothing’s going to stop it. But residents should understand the language as this unfolds.

According to the fifth amendment of Kiff’s contract in April 2017, Kiff serves at the “pleasure of the City Council.”

Nothing prevents Kiff from resigning with 45 days’ notice, but “upon the effective date of resignation, employee forfeits all compensation and benefits owing for the remainder of the term of this agreement, as well as any potential severance pay.”

So if Kiff resigns, he gets no severance.

The agreement goes on to say: “If employer terminates this agreement (thereby terminating employee’s employment) without cause, as determined by the affirmative votes of a majority of the members of the City Council at a meeting of the City Council ...” the city will pay “a lump sum benefit equal to six months of his then-applicable base salary and shall provide six months of medical coverage as provided under the compensation plan, as long as employee is already enrolled and receiving medical coverage through the city medical benefits plan at time of termination (collectively, ‘severance’).”

The word “severance” is important here because if Kiff were to retire when he planned in mid-2019, he would only receive his city pension and no severance package.

If the council majority votes on the sixth amendment and Kiff agrees to leave this year, is he technically resigning? In that scenario, he gets no severance, according to the contract.

But doesn’t this really mean the majority of the council would be removing him without cause and firing him?

Like I said, this is all about semantics. But at some point you can’t get around the reality of what’s happening.

Councilman Jeff Herdman, who is not in favor of Kiff’s early departure, says my assessment of the situation is correct and tells me it’s his understanding that a “severance package” has been negotiated with Kiff’s lawyer and will be included in the sixth amendment to be presented at the next council meeting.

The reality is, Kiff is done. Even though I feel he should thumb his nose at these shenanigans and stay until mid-2019, I understand the guy’s just had enough, and I don’t blame him.

Herdman, who is in the minority along with council members Diane Dixon and Brad Avery, knows they can’t turn the tide of events.

He’s looking to November for change.

“We need to focus on the next election to elect one or two new members. Then a new council can clean up what’s taken place here and get back to a council that’s ethical, transparent and truly interested in working for the people of Newport Beach,” Herdman says.

That being said, Herdman already has endorsed my neighbor and friend Tim Stoaks, who is running against Duffield, and Joy Brenner, who is challenging Councilman Scott Peotter.

He’s also endorsing Dixon for re-election.

At this point, Dixon doesn’t have an opponent, though that could change. But Herdman feels Dixon is “hard-working” and has proved she’s an independent thinker by moving away from the “Team Newport” majority she was elected with.

After this next council meeting, the process of finding Kiff’s replacement will begin.

It will be interesting to watch this unfold.

One person who said he does not want Kiff’s job is Dana Point City Manager Mark Denny.

Though rumors flew last week that he was in the running, Denny was shocked to hear it when I spoke with him Monday.

Appointed in July, he just moved his family to Dana Point from Tustin, loves his job and has no intention of leaving, he tells me.

Denny says he knows Kiff well, has enormous respect for him and hopes Kiff hangs on a while longer so they can continue to work together and with other Orange County city managers to solve the county’s homelessness issues.

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