Newport City Haul

The latest scandal in the city conservatives built

In January 1993, within hours of Bill Clinton's first inauguration, a Newport Beach family made its stately way to Balboa Pier to do a most Newport thing: enjoy the sun, picnic at the beach, and while they were at it-what the hell?-call for the ouster of the new Democratic president. A banner flapping from one of the family's beach chairs read "IMPEACH CLINTON."

In other words, conservatism gets some of its leading-edge ideas right here in Newport Beach. It also gets some of its biggest campaign contributions here. That makes the city the frequent site of state and national Republican gatherings.

You'd think Newport Beach would be the very mirror of conservative-style good government: low taxes, vigorous public oversight, a lean-and-mean public bureaucracy. You'd be wrong. Political scandal visits the city of Newport Beach the way the plagues did Egypt-regular as locusts, humiliating as boils. A few years ago, schools finance chief Stephen Wagner siphoned away millions of dollars before he was caught and jailed. Then there was the high-profile sex scandal at the Newport Beach Police Department, where racism has been an on-again, off-again worry.

For those reasons and more like them, the "surprise" resignation last August of city manager Kevin J. Murphy shouldn't have been much of a surprise. Intelligent minds ought to have guessed immediately that Newport Beach was about to be visited by another political plague.

Details of Murphy's abrupt Aug. 11 resignation remain well-guarded secrets. For the past five months, both the ex-city manager and the council have steadfastly refused to disclose publicly what happened. But what's no longer a secret is that Murphy resigned without another job lined up when it became clear a council majority was prepared to fire him.

What's also now clear is this: using a young local reporter, the city's power brokers masked the real controversy around Murphy's departure. In a city that prides itself on conservative, businesslike government, Murphy presided over a bureaucracy designed to serve the interests of Newport's business elite-at the expense of its mostly Republican taxpayers.

That's not how the story unfolded in the pages of the Los Angeles Times-owned Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. As the forced resignation piqued community interest late last summer and into the fall, Murphy's supporters launched a three-pronged disinformation campaign.

An immediate objective seemed to be insulating the ex-city manager from questions and criticisms. Establishment heavyweights-many of whom received plum government contracts and entitlements-stepped from their mansions and high-rise offices to reassure the public that Murphy, who was paid $146,500 per year, did well in a tough job. The Irvine Co.'s Gary Hunt, a mastermind of behind-the-scenes politics, said Murphy "will be sorely missed." John Yeager, a political insider who quit his post on the city's aviation committee in protest of Murphy's ouster, chided "elected leaders [who] would waste such an incredible human resource as Mr. Murphy."

But the sweetest accolades poured from the Pilot, which exhaustively declared Murphy "bright, highly competent . . . easygoing . . . somewhat of a workaholic . . . [a] decent, genuinely nice man [with] skills and talents and basic goodness."

A second smoke screen portrayed the motive for getting rid of Murphy as petty or even sinister. Insiders close to the ex-city manager have argued strenuously-but off-the-record-that Murphy may have been on the threshold of exposing unsavory acts tied to certain council members (Norma Glover, John Hedges, Tom Thomson and John Noyes), who then sought his quick removal. But no serious information has emerged to support those allegations.

Nevertheless, Murphy's supporters plowed ahead. "We have a City Council that works for their own personal agenda, and we all deserve better than that," said Rush Hill, an outspoken local business lobbyist. The Pilot followed blindly with an Aug. 13 headline: "Murphy, Citizens Deserve Better." If the Pilot was to be believed, evil lurked. The paper dramatically observed that city employees were "afraid to even give compliments about their old boss for fear of council retaliation-though their tears say a lot."

Diversion efforts also included putting a face on the supposed evil. Although four council members pressured the city manager out, the Pilot inexplicably targeted just one of them for criticism: Glover, who represents the city's 3rd district, which includes the bayfront restaurant row on PCH. The day after the resignation announcement, Pilot editor Bill Lobdell wrote, "it's hardly fair" that Glover-who ran unopposed in the November election-would not be held responsible. Lobdell didn't mention retaliation against Hedges, Noyes and Thomson, whose anti-Murphy sentiments were equally potent. On the second day of the scandal, former school-board president, Pilot columnist and Lobdell confidante Jim de Boom said he was contemplating forming a Glover opposition committee. The paper carried that news prominently.

The resignation mystery was less than 72 hours old, and the Murphy story had become the Glover story in the Pilot. Day after day, Glover's name and mug shot appeared with sensationalistic articles. The thick-skinned Oklahoma native with a pronounced drawl earned additional Pilot wrath in September, when she told a Balboa Island gathering that an unspecified "situation or incident" worthy of investigation had led to Murphy's ouster. The ex-city manager vigorously denied the claim. Rather than probe, Lobdell said he "waited and hoped" for "three months" that the assertion would be proven false. In early December, he got his wish when an embattled Glover unconvincingly recanted. As soon as the councilwoman capitulated, the de Boom-led recall effort disbanded. (A knowledgeable source said the moves were a behind-the scenes quid pro quo.)

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