Discussion heated up between Newport Beach City Council candidates and several journalists Wednesday during the Feet to the Fire Forum.
About 75 people attended the open format discussion at Oasis Senior Center, but there were three people whose absences were duly noted.
Chairs set up on stage for candidates Marshall “Duffy” Duffield for District 3, Kevin Muldoon for District 4 and Scott Peotter for District 6 sat empty during the event.
“I’m taking the issues that matter to Newporters very seriously and I didn’t want my positions to be presented in an unprofessional forum, especially considering the hard work and effort put into the other nine community forums I’m attending,” Muldoon explained in an email.
Peotter declined to comment, but did offer to answer to any other questions. A follow-up interview was unable to be completed by press time.
Duffield did not respond to an email seeking a comment.
None of them directly declined her invitation to the forum, said F2F co-creator and moderator and Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia.
“Nobody had the balls to call me, but I heard it through the grapevine that they weren’t going to be here,” she said. “I got a lot of different excuses.”
It also bothered her that they are sticking together rather than being independent thinkers, she said. Candidates running for office should be able to answer tough questions from both the press and the public, she added.
Norberto Santana Jr., editor-in-chief of Voice of OC, called it “cowardly.” It’s tough to get out there and engage in debate and answer difficult questions, he noted, but that’s a part of running for office.
The council hopefuls who were in attendance included: incumbent Mayor Rush Hill for District 3; Tim Brown and Roy Englebrecht for District 4; and Mike Toerge for District 6.
Diane Dixon is running unopposed for District 1, so she led the pledge of allegiance and stayed in the audience.
It would be best if all the candidates attended, but if they don’t want to show up, they don’t have to, noted John Canalis, F2F co-creator and Daily Pilot editor.
“It’s a real slap in the face,” to the other candidates, the residents and the people in the audience, Englebrecht said.
Brown also expressed his disappointment and said both his opponents, Englebrecht and Muldoon, have made him a better candidate.
It’s depriving the voters the opportunity to make a better, more informed decision, Brown said.
“Better to be quiet and be thought of a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” Toerge said, quoting Mark Twain.
Hill questioned who was behind the joint absence.
“I’m not running against Duffy, I’m running against Dave Ellis and Bob McCaffrey,” Hill said. “One’s got the money and the other’s been after me ever since I beat him four years ago.”
All three use political consultant Ellis, Venezia noted, and all three have been endorsed by McCaffrey.
Jack Wu, former Indy columnist and now with the Orange County Register, thanked the candidates that did attend, specifically Hill, who Wu has criticized in the past.
“You knew the hard questions would be coming,” he said.
“If you can’t stand the heat from… a bunch of yahoos like us, then how are you going to handle when you guys (public) ask questions?” Wu said.
The night continued with hot topics like city budget and debt, Measure Y, leasing or selling old city hall site, civic center cost and more.
“I’m concerned with the out of control spending in the city that‘s going to increase our debt,” Englebrecht said. “We are in an unsustainable financial situation with the spending in this city.”
The salaries and employee overtime are “out of control,” he said as an example.
Following Englebrecht’s comments, Wu questioned Hill about the increase in city spending over the years.
“Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should spend it,” Wu said.
The cost of putting on programs and providing services, like kids summer camps and Oasis activities, have gone up, Hill explained. But the revenues have increased as well, he added.
The employees are paying more into their pensions now than before, Hill argued.
But many were given raises to cover that, Wu responded.
Hill and Wu went back and forth before Venezia interjected asking the others about the budget and what they would cut.
Toerge suggested sharing certain services, like SWAT or other tactical teams.
Englebrecht suggested cutting 15 percent of city staff and an immediate moratorium on overtime for city employees and a better policy regarding overtime.
“We’re elected to be good stewards of your money, taxpayer money, and this is where it’s falling down,” Englebrecht said.
Brown questioned where he would cut that 15 percent.
He would leave it up to department heads, Englebrecht replied. He’d give them one year to cut 10 percent and the following year to cut the final five percent.
There was some debate over where to cut versus being able to provide quality services and programs.
The other candidates questioned how realistic it is to try and cut that much from the budget.
The city is run efficiently, Hill said. Council members need to be problem solvers he, added.
Venezia also asked the candidates about Measure Y.
Englebrecht was the only one against it, calling it a “cover up” and “disingenuous.”
It’s controversial, Hill said.
The development in Newport Center will add traffic, Hill said, but it’s about “where you want the traffic.”
There is potential it holds to mitigate traffic in the future, Brown commented.
It’s a close call, noted Toerge, who opposed the amendment until council made some changes.
“No matter what happens, our city is going to be fine,” Toerge said.