Shock, anger, and sadness dominated the public comments during Tuesday’s Newport Beach City Council meeting.
Nearly two dozen residents came out this week to show their support for Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff and, at the same time, question the suspected reasons behind his surprise announcement of an early retirement.
The city released a statement on Sunday explaining that Kiff told City Council he will leave his post toward the end of 2018.
Other unverified reports claim that several Council members pressured Kiff into departing before his contract is up late next year.
A crowd filled Council chambers Tuesday to voice their opinions on the matter, praising Kiff and his work, upset over the allegations of forcing him out, and demanding answers from the Council.
Newport Beach is a first-class city and there is nothing classy about the rumors he’s hearing, local Jim Warren commented.
“Let’s get out of the gutter and treat him right,” Warren told the Council. “If he wants to retire, let him retire a hero. He’s a hero in this neighborhood, you all are unknowns, you don’t exist. So help us out, do it right.”
The crowd applauded and Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield had to bang his gavel to regain order of the cheering audience.
Even though it was not an official subject on Tuesday’s agenda, as Kiff emphasized, residents brought up their concerns during public comment.
At the start of the meeting, Duffield moved “public comments on non-agenda items” to the end of the schedule.
Several residents mentioned the reshuffle of the agenda and delay of what most in the large crowd were waiting for as a sign of disrespect.
“I believe you know why most of us are here this evening and I am sure you know of our fierce loyalty to our city manager, Dave Kiff,” said longtime resident Allan Beek.
But before diving into the night’s re-arranged agenda, Duffield vaguely asked if Kiff had anything he’d “like to say.”
Kiff explained that he wanted to “make everyone aware” that there will be an item on the upcoming April 10 agenda that involves an amendment to his contract that includes a “transition period.”
Residents expressed shock upon learning of Kiff’s accelerated departure.
Former Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer said she was “appalled, amazed, and then embarrassed” for the city when she heard the rumors.
“This is the level we’ve fallen to,” she said.
It is alleged that Kiff was encouraged to retire early by Duffield, Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill, and Councilmen Kevin Muldoon, and Scott Peotter.
“They called it retirement,” Brewer added. “Was his retirement demanded? Was there coercion involved?”
Only three of them may have actually been in the room, but they had the “vote of the fourth one in their back pocket,” Brewer claimed. She called it “back-room dealings” and such a meeting was never authorized.
It was allegedly done in private, without the knowledge of Council members Diane Dixon, Jeff Herdman, or Brad Avery.
“I want to say for the public record that I was not aware of any effort to oust the city manager, to negotiate an exit, or assert there were four votes to accomplish this act by the Council majority,” Herdman said Tuesday.
It’s an embarrassment to the city, Brewer added.
“Actually, it’s not time for Dave Kiff to go, it’s time for the four of you to go,” Brewer said.
There was some back and forth between a few Council members and the crowd, with O’Neill and Muldoon denying any meeting and having Kiff confirm that they never met, and Brewer and the audience not buying the claim and reacting loudly.
A lot of inaccurate information was spread, Muldoon continued, but the record was corrected, referencing the city’s press release and accompanying message from Kiff.
“You come here and you make a bunch of statements that are not founded and you do so in a very disrespectful way and I think it’s inappropriate,” Muldoon said.
Later in the meeting, Muldoon simply asked if he was ever in a meeting with Kiff discussing this topic, and again, Kiff said no.
In an email response, O’Neill also stated that “no such meeting has ever taken place.”
Former Mayor Nancy Gardner called this a “very divisive moment.”
At a time when the “truthiness” and “fake news” and politicians who boast about lying are common on the national level, it’s almost impossible to settle an issue like this at the local level, she commented.
“What are denials going to mean? Not very much,” Gardner said. “And so we’re going to continue with this divisiveness.”
Public perception, whether it’s right or wrong, is powerful, she noted, and the notion that their shared campaign manager, Dave Ellis, is the puppet master pulling all the strings behind the scenes makes other theories easier to believe.
It’s interfering with communication and trust between residents and Council members, Gardner pointed out.
She suggested, simply, that Council members consider changing campaign managers.
“At least it would eliminate that one particular shadow,” Gardner said.
And it was what was allegedly done in the shadows that had many people distressed on Tuesday.
“We’re upset about Dave Kiff’s resignation, we’re upset because we feel like there was pressure put on him to resign by certain Council members,” said Joy Brenner, candidate in the Corona del Mar district for the 2018 Council election.
Former Mayor Mike Henn said he had never seen anything like it.
“In my eight years on City Council, never once did a rogue group of Council members engage in such a serious action against a city executive without notice, due process, or proper authority,” Henn emphasized. “This action, if true, is a terrible affront and is deeply disrespectful to fellow Council members and to the voters that elected them.”
As mayor, it is part of Duffield’s responsibilities to ensure proper due process and respectful treatment of all Council colleagues, Henn explained.
“You must have know about this. How could be so feckless as to stand by and allow this disrespectful and insulting action to occur?” Henn asked. “Or worse yet, did you encourage it?”
Kiff has worked for the city for 20 years, moving into the city manager position in 2009.
Residents called Kiff a “terrific” public servant, unmatched in his ability, professionalism, openness, dedication and strong ethics.
“Your knowledge, dedication, integrity, work ethic, and accomplishments are second to none,” Henn said.
He has always gone above and beyond, others noted.
“We will never find another Dave Kiff, they just don’t make them that good,” longtime resident Nancy Skinner noted. “He is the best of the best.”
Newport Beach has been blessed to have him leading the local government, she added. He will leave a huge hole in the heart of the local administration, she commented.
“He’s such a valuable asset to the city,” Skinner said. He “will be greatly missed by all of us who value and appreciate good government.”
She recalled the meeting when Kiff was selected for the top administrative position.
The high praise from residents on Tuesday was reminiscent of similar remarks Kiff received when he was selected for the position nine years ago. Then-Mayor Ed Selich announced that Kiff had earned the appointment during a special meeting on Aug. 18, 2009. Kiff received a standing ovation and loud cheering from residents and city staff, along with glowing comments from the Council members at the time.
It wasn’t an automatic selection, he had to prove himself through a rigorous process, Selich explained.
“We searched nationwide for the best possible person to fill the position,” Selich said in 2009. “This Council whole-heartedly supports Dave… I believe that he will be the man to lead this city, and this organization into the future.”
Although the overall mood surrounding the changeover in 2009 starkly contrasts with the current situation.
If this is a “done deal,” there needs to be talk about what comes next, said resident Nancy Alston.
“I don’t want some ignoramus, a puppet, somebody who doesn’t have any interest in protecting this city,” particularly from airport expansion, she said.
In the press release, both Duffield and O’Neill commended Kiff’s leadership.
In his message accompanying the city’s statement on Sunday, Kiff stated that he informed Council over a year ago that he might be looking to move north to be closer to family.
He has loved the job, but it is demanding and the residents deserve 100 percent focus, which has worn him out over time, Kiff said.
“As I get less young, I don’t recharge as quickly,” he added.
In the city’s press release, Kiff said he is “committed to implementing a smooth transition” to “Dave 2.0.”
He respects the Council and manager form of government, which has served Newport Beach well, and includes the fact that the manager is an “at will” employee with a formal contract. Kiff noted. On Tuesday, he asked Council to consider amending his contract.
“I am happy in making this request and want the community to know that all is good with me, my family, and my work,” Kiff said in the message. “There are great things ahead for all of us.”
Transition plans, which could take several months, will be discussed at an upcoming Council meeting