As the 2016 political season nears the final stretch, the Newport Beach City Council candidates are wrapping up the last few forums, including a community meeting held Wednesday at Marina Park.
The Central Newport Beach Community Association hosted the discussion panel, which was a good culmination of the previous forums, hitting several hot topics, asking a few insightful questions, and providing an introduction of each candidate.
Former Newport Beach Indy publisher Tom Johnson moderated the event.
The participating candidates included: Brad Avery for District 2; Mike Glenn and Jeff Herdman for District 5; and Fred Ameri, Phil Greer, and Will O’Neill for District 7.
Lee Lowrey missed the forum because his wife gave birth Wednesday morning, Johnson and O’Neill explained. Shelley Henderson for District 2 was also absent.
Johnson asked Avery about his absent opponent, Henderson, who has missed several other candidate forums.
“It’s a little lonely, frankly,” Avery joked. She’s a wonderful, warm and gracious person, he added.
Some residents have indicated he is “basically running unopposed,” but that’s not how Avery feels. He said a recent poll showed Henderson in the lead.
“I don’t take my race for granted at all,” Avery said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all on.”
The council hopefuls also discussed a few familiar topics, including Banning Ranch, Museum House and unfunded pension liability. They also touched on several Balboa Peninsula-related issues, including boardwalk safety and revitalizing the village.
Dave Ellis, the campaign manager for Avery, Lowrey, and O’Neill, was also mentioned a few times during the forum, as it has been throughout the campaign. Ellis was also the manager of the “Team Newport” slate during the last local election.
“This is what politics are turning into in this city and it’s just a shame,” Herdman said. “And we need to do something about it.”
Ellis’ connection with Museum House was also discussed, as Ameri pointed out. Ellis stands to make a great deal of money on the project, if approved, Herdman added.
Avery hired Ellis to run his campaign as best he can, nothing more, Avery confirmed. Ellis also made his connection with Museum House very clear from the start, Avery noted.
“There is no way Dave Ellis is going to influence my vote on anything,” Avery said.
Candidates were split on the Museum House proposed development. Both O’Neill and Avery refused to take a side on the project. If someone publicly shows bias on an issue then they will be disqualified to vote on it later, O’Neill explained. Greer disagreed with O’Neill’s conclusion he drew from the Woody’s Wharf case that O’Neill cited as a reference. The case does not say someone can’t take a position at all, Greer argued.
Another big topic of the night was Banning Ranch. Herdman noted that initially his personal opinion was in favor of very limited development on the property, however, after listening to residents his view changed.
“The majority (of Newport Beach residents) clearly are not in favor of development on Banning Ranch,” Herdman said. “So I have to change my mind. I have to represent you, in terms of my opinion on Banning Ranch development.”
It is important to him that whatever he says or however he votes represents the residents, whether or not he personally agrees with it, Herdman said.
Glenn said he changed his mind on the issue after touring the land. He first thought of it as a nature preserve where “great things are happening,” but after seeing it firsthand, he realized it’s an active oil field that is fenced off from the public, Glenn explained.
“It’s disgusting, frankly, and it’s dangerous,” Glenn said.
The developer providing 80 percent of the land for open space is a “pretty good deal,” he said. Glenn also reminded the audience that residents previously voted for development on the land, including more residential units than the number that was included in the most recent proposal. The developer reduced the number of residential units to avoid build-out, Glenn said.
“It’s a property rights issue,” Glenn concluded. “We’ve already granted them the rights, we can’t just turn around and say ‘We’re going to strip them.’”
Answering another question with support/oppose paddle signs, only Herdman and Greer were in favor of the city funding the current art programs.
Greer, whose wife, Arlene, is on the Arts Commission, has been a longtime supporter of the arts. Newport Beach has enough money in the budget to fund some art in the city, he said.
“I think the arts are an essential part of our community,” Greer said. “It’s part of what makes the community special. It’s part of what gives the community heart and soul.”
Art is not just the sculpture park, it’s also the concerts in the park (which draw hundreds) and the popular library exhibits, he reminded the audience. Not every person is going to like every art piece or program, but all of it is an important part of the community, Greer said.
On the other side of the issue, Glenn opposed the question. He likes art and would donate to an art foundation, but it shouldn’t be on the taxpayer’s dime.
“I don’t think everybody should be forced to pay for it,” Glenn said. “I think we’ve got a lot of money in Newport Beach and we can voluntarily fund art without a problem.”
Following up on revitalizing the Balboa Village, while focusing on the perpetually hot topic of traffic, Ameri expressed frustration with his fellow running mates answers. Of course they need to talk to experts and gather community feedback, but those are general, vague answers, he said. Coming up with actual ideas is what counts, Ameri said.
“I don’t hear very many solutions,” he said. “All I’ve heard are these generic statements.”
Ameri suggested a parking structure, not higher than the current building, and could include one or two underground levels. The exterior could look like a “five star resort,” he suggested.
Better enforcement of the parking codes is also needed, he added. So many garages are going unused as people park on the street, Ameri said. A garage is to park a car, not storage, Ameri said.
“What goes on in your garage is your business,” Glenn responded, eliciting applause from the audience. More government is not the solution, he added.
All the candidates agreed that speed along the boardwalk on the Balboa Peninsula is an issue. Enforcement needs to be increased, several candidates noted. Police officers on bicycles could help, Herdman suggested. There are also bigger concepts used for traffic that could be modified and implemented to help slow things down, Ameri added.
The candidates also got a chance to introduce themselves and answered why each of them decided to run for City Council.
Herdman took his introduction time as an opportunity to clear up some misinformation about him.
“I have absolutely no interest in raising taxes nor am I a supporter of rent control,” Herdman clarified.
Referring to his experience on the Finance Committee, O’Neill said the city has worked on policies to save going forward, but “there is a long way to go.” The unfunded pension liability is the biggest issue the city faces, he said. He supports back-to-basics budgeting.