The citizen of the year award has also gotten a bit more breadth and depth to it in the past couple of years, Salata noted. Though the winner always has been picked by past recipients, the group decided the award, and the events around it, should be bigger.
"It's moved up 100 yards since a few years ago," Salata said of the renewed focus on the award.
Last year's award gala drew about 230 people. The winner was Balboa Ferry operator Seymour Beek, son of Newport founding father Joseph.
"It'll be tough shoes to fill," Beek jokingly told O'Neil. He also made a point that he was still citizen of the year until this year's gala, scheduled for June 2 at the Island Hotel in Newport Center.
As someone who wasn't supposed to know he was getting the award until he walked into the room, O'Neil reacted according to script.
"Get out of here," were the first words out of his mouth as he scanned the room full of some of Newport's most distinguished residents: Beek, Marian Bergeson, Bill Ficker, Art Gronsky, Bill Hamilton, Rush Hill, Lucille Kuehn, Dayna Petit and Michael Stephens among them.
"Well this is quite an honor," O'Neil continued. "I'm really surprised."
His reaction quickly turned a bit more light-hearted.
"I was wondering when they'd run out of worthy people to give it to," he said.
Judging by the glowing stories those gathered told, O'Neil was alone in the low opinion of himself. A quick rundown shows he played a major role in setting up the city's senior service; in expanding its libraries; in first dealing with tougher environmental rules and the California Coastal Commission.
Perhaps his crowning glory was as city attorney when he had a central role in keeping the planned freeway along Pacific Coast Highway from being built.
"I kind of became a hero," O'Neil said of the city's victory over the freeway construction. "And I liked it, and I've been going downhill ever since."
Of his council years, O'Neil said, establishing the city's backup well water system, getting the extension to the John Wayne Settlement Agreement and the annexation of Newport Coast were highlights.
Such experiences are what the former winners look for in a citizen of the year, said Chamber of Commerce president Richard Luehrs.
"The group brings a sense of history and sense of community that reaches pretty far and pretty deep," he added.
Even after the news had a bit of time to sink in, O'Neil still seemed shocked he had been added to that group.
"I'm truly surprised and honored," he said. "I have a great love for the city, and to be honored and recognized by people of such stature is beyond my comprehension or understanding right now."