How Newport Government Works. (Part 1)

Recently, there has been a lot of confusion about how local government works and who votes on what– this seems to stem from the multiple meetings with Dog Beach, which is definitely well beyond Civics 101 that you might have read previously, so I’ll do my best to explain this with as little ambiguity as possible!

First, we’ve got cities.

Cities do not come with districts by default, but they can be voted on to be created by the public.
In fact, by default, there is a boilerplate City Charter that is handed down by the state.  If a city does not modify this charter, it is called a “General Law” city.  If there are any changes to the charter at all, it becomes known in the legal community as a “Charter City”.  In California, about 125 of our ~500 cities are charter cities.

In Newport Beach, we became a charter city in 1955, and remain one of the dozen or so charter cities in Orange County.

In Newport Beach, the Mayor– while doubtlessly a fancy title– doesn’t really have any fancy powers that they didn’t have as a councilperson.  The Mayor basically just leads the meetings and signs what the council votes on.  If the mayor hates an idea that the majority of the council voted on, he still has to sign the paperwork for it– so this could be a very frustrating position to be in, at times.  The “Mayor Pro Tem” is essentially a “vice mayor”, and *usually* signals who will be the mayor in the following year– however there have been more than a few exceptions to this rule.  The Mayor and the Mayor Pro Tem are selected at the end of each year, and they will serve in their capacity until the following years selections.  Here, our mayor is simply another councilperson, and of our 7 councilpeople, the council selects one of themselves to act as Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem for the following years.  Basically, the system allows for a possibility of everyone to be mayor during their term (unless you are disliked by the other councilpeople, in which case you’ll never see that title).

The city council has meetings every-other Tuesdays, and vote on a variety of issues.  Many of these issues have already been vetted and had a recommendation for council voted on by a wide variety of commissions (where the members are appointed by council) or committees (where about half the council is a member themselves, and about half are appointed by other councilmembers).  With the notable exception of the Planning Commission, the committees and commissions are typically powerless entities that merely pass suggestions to council on their recommendations about how to vote to the council, and these committees help to iron out any details that may be too time-consuming for council to do, as all the committees do a lot of legwork for the council all at once.

So how do you get appointed to a committee or a commission?  Well, first they pass you through a vetting committee to make sure that you don’t have any conflicts.  For instance: If some guy got caught intentionally dumping raw sewage into the harbor, he wouldn’t exactly be on the short-list for a Harbor Commission appointment.  Additionally, it helps to befriend one of the people on the Screening Committee, as there are multiple applications for positions, and typically only two finalists make it out to the council per-position.  Naturally, this leads people on the Screening Commission to filter out people who they don’t know or don’t like, so that their friends get positions.  On paper, they are supposed to select the most qualified applicants– however, we all know how “on paper, they are supposed to…” works in government.

Bigger issues like Dog Beach often get referred to their respective Committees as a first-run to make sure that the lay of the land gets worked out before it gets to council.  That is why many people participated in the Parks, Beaches, and Recreations Commission meeting, where Commissioner Ron Cole made a motion to expand Dog Beach into Newport (instead of just keeping it on county land) in order for people to be able to actually legally access the area.  After that, it is supposed to go to Council, however City Manager Dave Kiff said to us “as City Manager I will not be bringing an item to Council offering an expansion of any off-leash area onto City beaches”, and the motion died and never made it to council.  Furthermore, city staff under Dave Kiff mis-transcribed the motion and left out that very critical part of it.  (Is that legal?  Well, it isn’t criminal, but it is a dereliction of duty.  I hope that council holds Dave Kiff accountable for his actions.)

The City Council is able to fire the city manager and replace him with another city manager of their choosing.  They are able to do the same with the City Clerk and the City Attorney.  Those are the three people in which council actually has a say in hiring.  The rest, legally, are left up to their respective departments (the City Clerk hires her department, the City Attorney hires his, and the City Manager hires all the rest.  The council has no legal say in any paid-employee hirings or firings (in practice, this law-breaking does occur behind the scenes, however it is almost never able to be proven), and according to extreme interpretations of the law, they are not even supposed to talk to city staff members.

I could go on and on, but I’ve already nearly doubled my standard attempt to keep things to 500 words or less.  I hope this has helped to clarify some of how our city functions!



About Mike Glenn

Mike is the founder and publisher of Save Newport and Chair of Government Relations for the Elks Lodge. He writes, shoots photos, and edits, but much of the time, he's just "the IT guy". He can be reached at: Google+, Facebook, or via email, at