Citizen of the Year Nancy Gardner’s Community Activism Spans 40 Years

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Nancy Gardner smiles and celebrates after the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce announced her as the 2019 Citizen of the Year.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

An outspoken voice in the community for nearly 40 years, Nancy Gardner was chosen as the 2019 Newport Beach Citizen of the Year.

Former Mayor and Newport native, Gardner was named Citizen of the Year by the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce during an announcement event July 26 at the NB Marriott Hotel & Spa.

Gardner was surprised with the announcement during an “impromptu presentation” by Chamber President Steve Rosansky while she was attending a Friends of Newport Beach Animal Shelter meeting. After Rosansky made the announcement, the hotel provided a champagne toast for the group.

“They pulled a name out” of a hat, Gardner joked.

Her selection establishes the first father-daughter Citizens of the Year, as her father, Judge Robert Gardner, earned the award in 1968.

Gardner’s calling as a community advocate started off concerned about water quality issues and working with Surfrider, championing the Newport Beach chapter of the organization.

Over the years, she tackled various issues and projects while on City Council, co-chaired the General Plan Advisory Committee — helping shape the General Plan that was passed in 2006, was a board member of the Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation, and led the Water Quality/Coastal Tidelands Committee.

“Newport has been, over the last decade and a half or so, really a leader, doing a lot of things that have set the path for other cities,” Gardner said. “I think I had a role in that, and that’s gratifying.”

Nowadays, in addition to her work with FONBAS, she’s still focused on environmental issues and projects, including Orange Coast River Park and staying involved with the Water Quality/Coastal Tidelands Committee. Gardner also currently chairs the General Plan Update Steering Committee.

Former mayor Nancy Gardner addresses Speak Up Newport audience in 2017 about the Newport Beach Animal Shelter.
— Photo by Victoria Kertz ©

“It can get confusing at times, which hat am I wearing (today)?” she joked, “but it’s also nice to have the variety.”

Gardner was born and raised in Newport Beach, living on the Balboa Peninsula, Balboa Island, and (mostly) in Corona del Mar while growing up.

She jumped right in when she first got involved with Surfrider.

“We took on The Irvine Company immediately,” Gardner recalled. “In that process, we were concerned about runoff from the golf course, I realized that we knew so little.”

They didn’t know how the process worked or any of the “players” involved, so they had to develop that knowledge, she explained. That led her to the Water Quality/Coastal Tidelands Committee, she started attending meetings and was eventually appointed to the board.

“I think that I played a certain role in the city’s attention to water quality issues,” Gardner said.

In 2006, the Council member in her district was a “square peg in a round hole.” The community wanted a change and the seat was up for election, she noted.

Gardner asked a few community leaders if they would jump in the race, but nobody wanted to run against an incumbent, she explained.

Debra Allen and Jan Debay then flipped the script and asked Gardner if she would run. She discussed it with her husband, Jim Switzer, who pointed out that she goes to all the meetings anyway, but this way she’d get to vote.

Then-incoming Mayor Keith Curry presents an award to outgoing mayor Nancy Gardner for her service as mayor during 2012.
— Photo by Jim Collins

“That would be nice,” she recalled thinking at the time.

So, she ran.

By the time the ballot boxes were closed, she had won about 57 percent of the votes, according to Orange County Registrar of Voters records.

“I’m very competitive, once I’m in, I’m going to do everything I can (to win),” Gardner noted.

She was re-elected in 2010 and served as mayor in 2012.

She called her role in helping the Corona del Mar branch library and fire station come to fruition “little,” but Rosansky begs to differ.

“If it wasn’t for Nancy, there wouldn’t be a library,” Rosansky said. “We were set to demolish that library, but she came on Council and turned our heads a little bit.”

A big project they were on “different sides” of was the new Civic Center. They may have disagreed, but they talked through the entire thing, she noted.

“We were able, as a group, to disagree — and disagree viscerally — and when the issue was decided, we came back together,” Gardner said.

Nancy Gardner and fellow former mayor Evelyn Hart (left) laugh and chat as they sit down for a group photo of past mayors during the 2018 Mayor’s Dinner.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

Everyone had their area of expertise and they respected each other, noted Rosansky, who was on the Council for several years at the same time as Gardner.

“That was the magic of our ‘Dream Team’ City Council,” added Rosansky, referencing the nickname given to the group on the dais at the time.

The drive to give back to the community is something both she and Rosansky share, Gardner commented.

“We both want to make a difference,” Gardner said. “Part of it (is also), I grew up here… it’s so much a part of me. Also, I’ve got grandkids, and we’re not leaving them in the greatest situation, so I want to do what I can.”

Gardner embodies what it means to be a Citizen of the Year in Newport Beach, Rosansky commented.

The award is given to those who help others achieve, have a long-term and continuing commitment to the community, and for “being there” when service is needed, Chamber officials explain on the criteria list.

“And it’s for the one who says, ‘Newport Beach is my home – and my life – and its future and mine are the same – and whatever I can do to make them better, I will do,’” officials wrote.

The Citizen of Year Dinner is scheduled for Nov. 15 at Balboa Bay Resort.

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