City Life: Not enough young voters engaged

Anyone who has to speak in public regularly would benefit from watching Rush Hill, one of the Newport Beach City Council candidates.

At Wednesday night's candidate forum at the new OASIS Senior Center in Corona del Mar, Hill took a swipe at Costa Mesa. And I didn't care, in part, because he was right.

Along with Councilwoman Leslie Daigle and her challenger, Mark Tabbert, Hill was one of three candidates at the forum. There were supposed to be four, but for a reason that wasn't disclosed, Ed Reno was absent. He later said he was double-booked.

Throughout the evening it looked like Daigle's feet were hurting her. That was a disappointment, because Daigle recently questioned a $125,000 contract item for the new Civic Center project that allowed the city's Public Works Department to hire an outside building plan inspector without having to do a formal review of competitors' qualifications. This is the type of questioning and oversight that elected officials should conduct as standard operating procedure.

It did not matter that Daigle questioned an item that was about 1% of the project's total estimated cost. From me she gets a standing ovation not only for her inquiry, but for the response it produced from Public Works Director Steve Badum.

"We did not shortcut our process to do this," he said. "This happens quite a bit."

Oh, really?

Hill's Costa Mesa jab came when the candidates were asked whether the current public employee compensation plans in Newport Beach, including pensions, were sustainable. Hill talked about the Newport Beach "family" working together to reach an agreement with unions that would help the city get through the recession in good fiscal health.

On these negotiations, he said, "We don't scream and holler in this town."

I did not give him the "stink eye." Hard to do that when the man is right.

In addition to the compensation issue, the three candidates were asked about managing fire danger in parts of the city, a resident survey process, Measure V, and the all-important leaf blower controversy. It seems that leaf blowers are a necessary nuisance and tolerated more in some parts of town than in others, which is probably true in every city.

My thought here was that someone should fund a research and development program at UC Irvine to create a leaf blower that is silent and effective. But then, as someone who vacuums leaves, I've never understood the concept of blowing them elsewhere.

The biggest impression from last Wednesday night was not the quality of Hill's delivery or even the beautiful new senior center. It was the approximate age of the attendees, which should be of great concern to everyone.

At all of the forums I have attended in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, the crowd is decidedly older — about 50 years, perhaps more. Though hardly a scientific analysis, this apparent lack of younger voters says that we are failing to engage the people who will be making these same decisions in the years to come.

As I have written before, these local elections are almost always far more important to the average citizen than electing a president. But unless we can find a way to tear younger voters away from whatever screen it is they happen to be watching at any given time, important decisions will increasingly fall into the hands of a few. When that happens, expect to see fewer Daigles questioning budget items.

Hill said it best Wednesday: "Government takes place when people show up."

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.

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