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Treading softly, Newport's new mayor goes her own way

Praised for a light touch and gift for compromise, Nancy Gardner tends to side with the environment in a conservative-leaning city.

December 17, 2011|By Mike Reicher
  • Newport Beach Mayor Nancy Gardner, pictured here in her home, was elected into the largely ceremonial position Tuesday. The Newport native is known to side with the environment in the conservative-leaning city.
Newport Beach Mayor Nancy Gardner, pictured here in her… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

NEWPORT BEACH — Her home is as independent as her politics.

Nancy Gardner, Newport Beach's new mayor, lives tucked behind a rich, messy garden, with a rusted gate and a canopy of wisteria draping over the front of her house.

Just across her street end are two stark white homes, one with predictable palms and neat turquoise trim.

Gardner, 69, has often voted in the minority during her five years on the City Council. She stakes out independent positions and follows an environmental agenda in the conservative-leaning city. But by compromising and forgoing issues too far to the left, she has managed to advance ideas, and has earned respect from peers.

"She's interested in achieving consensus," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, a past mayor. "She'll compromise when she needs to and she'll stick to her positions when she wants to."

Rosansky and the five other council members unanimously voted to name Gardner mayor Tuesday. The largely ceremonial position changes hands annually.

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One of the most powerful parts of the job is its agenda-setting role. Outgoing Mayor Mike Henn used it to outsource city services, to reform city employee pensions and to begin revitalizing neighborhoods.

Gardner plans to address more "soft" measures, she said in her living room, next to a pastel painting of a surfer. After a few years of downsizing and merging city departments, she said government needs to "take a breath and be sure all the little things are in place."

She talked about replanting some of the city's urban forest — Newport has nearly 40,000 trees on public grounds, and many are reaching the end of their lifespans. This problem came into focus after a eucalyptus fell and killed a motorist in September. Since then, officials have cut down nearly half of the city's 400 blue gum eucalyptus trees.

"We've been pretty reactive up to this point," said Gardner, who has nectarine, peach and apple trees in her plot.

As she looks forward, she can't count on backing from groups like the Sierra Club. The group and other environmentalists refused to endorse Gardner in her second election, after she supported Sunset Ridge Park, a proposed sports park on a bluff in West Newport.

That park has been mired in the controversy over the planned adjacent Banning Ranch development. As the 1,400-home Banning project winds it way through the entitlement process, Gardner will likely be leading the council's meetings.

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