On Housekeeping, Political Style

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Despite the evidence to the contrary – our recent 90-degree days, for example – we are on the cusp of fall.

I know this because the angle of the sun lowers in the sky as the autumnal equinox approaches. And with it, at least at our house, comes a sense of urgency: Shake off the languor of summer and get busy — put away your white slacks and skirts and shoes, not to be worn again until Memorial Day. (Yes, I belong to the quaint generation of women that tends to wear white only between the end of May and Labor Day weekend.) Then clean out your closets, organize the garage, and get ready for winter.

My California-raised husband, whose wardrobe knows no season, finds this annual ritual bemusing, but hey, it’s not just me. Even our local politicians have been up to some fall housekeeping lately.

I know this because I attended the September meeting of an admirable organization known as Speak Up Newport (SUN), a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting our city’s “desirable and unique quality of life” and recognizing people who have had a positive impact upon the city. SUN also sponsors monthly meetings on local issues of interest.

The subject of the evening was Measure EE: Amendments to City Charter. We’ll be hearing a great deal about these amendments until Election Day, but I defy anyone to do a finer job of presenting the issue to the public as efficiently as SUN did: At 6:30 on a humid Thursday evening, 40 or so people gathered for free appetizers and an open bar before hearing the arguments for and against Measure EE. It didn’t hurt that the venue was the Newport Beach Yacht Club, overlooking the bay.

Promptly at 7 o’clock, moderator Debra Allen introduced the speakers: Speaking in favor of EE were Newport Beach Mayor Pro Tem Keith D. Curry and attorney Paul K. Watkins, chair of the Charter Update Committee that met six times earlier this year. Anti-Measure EE speakers were architect Ron Hendrickson and Cal Tech graduate Jim Mosher.

Curry began with four minutes of opening remarks, followed by a four-minute rebuttal, several minutes each of additional pros and cons, and several questions.

Conclusion: It is possible to get people in the political arena to speak to the point and within the allotted time. The event concluded on time at 8 o’clock – a small though comforting point during this windy campaign season.

Curry argued that most of the proposed 38 (or 25 or 64, depending upon who’s counting) amendments are housekeeping items that would simply tidy up the charter. For example:

  • Section 425 City Hall: A change in the address of City Hall from the old location on Balboa Peninsula to the soon to be opened location on Avocado Avenue in Newport Center.
  • Section 710 Civil Service Board: The addition of “or she” after “he” in reference to the members of the board.
  • Section 505 Meetings: Deleted is “The City Manager shall be accorded a seat at the City Council table and at all meetings of boards and commissions and shall be entitled to participate in their deliberations, but shall not have a vote.” The suggested replacement reads, “The City Manager shall be entitled to participate in the deliberations of the City Council and at any meeting of the City’s boards, commissions and committees, but shall not have a vote.”[i]

That all sounds agreeable.

Several of the other items, however, are more complex and controversial.

Hendrickson and Mosher voiced their concerns regarding the changes to conflict-of-interest protections and open-meeting laws, the prohibition of class-action claims, and the council’s allowance/compensation. These items and others could result in unintended and negative consequences.

Adding in items like these strikes me as akin to persuading your husband to do a mundane task that requires little thought, say cleaning up the garage, and then slipping in the idea of buying a dog or booking a trip to Europe. Not quite fair. Besides, the way Measure EE is structured, you must either vote “yes” or “no” on the whole package – there’s no picking and choosing.

I have another concern about this measure: The language is too vague and general to make an informed decision. After studying the 74-word measure, I still did not clearly understand precisely what I was being asked to vote on.

Sure, you can look up the full Charter with its proposed changes online at www.newportbeachca.gov/index.aspx?page=2158, but how many voters in our too-often-complacent city will take the time to do so?

One of the attendees pointed out that there’s very limited space to present a measure on the ballot. All the more reason why each word should be carefully chosen.

Ernest Hemingway was once reportedly challenged to tell a story in six words. He responded, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In 2006, SMITH magazine solicited online contributions for its Six-Word Memoir Project. Hundreds of thousands of readers effectively summed up their lives thus. A couple of favorites: “I still make coffee for two” and “Made a mess; cleaned it up.”

The subsequent book, “Not Quite What I Was Expecting,” became a New York Times bestseller.

SMITH’s project proves that you don’t have to be a Hemingway to write clearly and concisely. If ordinary citizens can do it, why not our Newport Beach politicians?

The Charter Update Committee worked hard on these amendments. I just wish they’d had better direction.



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