When Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia and I met four years ago at the Balboa Yacht Club, we began an unlikely friendship.

I say unlikely because we worked for competing papers. And she, to put it mildly, was as outgoing as her red hair and forward fashion sense would suggest. I was more reserved behind my glasses and button downs.

Nevertheless, we shared a passion for newspapering, politics and the twin cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. One of the most important outgrowths of that friendship was the Feet to the Fire Forum, a series of candidate debates we started that were often compelling, occasionally boring and at times a little bizarre (but always interesting and well-attended).

Our improvised format — no canned introductions, no questions on little blue cards and a relaxed seating arrangement in the style of "Meet the Press" — seemed new to Orange County politics. We assembled a great team — Voice of OC Editor Norberto Santana Jr., Register columnist Jack Wu, former Register community editor Roger Bloom, and former Register columnist Frank Mickadeit.

Those guys, as well as visiting panelist Tom Johnson, a former Daily Pilot publisher, did a great job for the voters by asking pointed questions and sparring with the candidates.

I think we met our goals of giving the public a candid view of the people running for office and providing substantive, spirited public debate for the live audience and those watching at home. That's why, I am proud to say, we are planning a series of debates for the 2014 election season. Frank has left journalism to practice law, but the rest of us are prepping for the upcoming Feet to the Fire Forums.

Throughout 2014, our panel is going to meet with candidates for the Costa Mesa and Newport Beach city councils, state Assembly and the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Each race is a good one.

The Costa Mesa forum should sizzle. Mayor Jim Righeimer is up for reelection, and there are candidates, including former Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who want to either join or challenge his council majority. Voters could elect a Latino, Lee Ramos, for the first time in city history. Candidate Tony Capitelli, who works in the Huntington Beach district office for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, has politics in his family; he's the son-in-law of Newport Councilman Keith Curry.

The Assembly contest could shape up as a battle between two cities. Because of the size and influence of their respective beach towns, Newport's Curry and Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper are considered the de facto front-runners against Santa Ana community activist Karina Onofre, Emanuel Patrascu, the district director for Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), and educator Anila Ali of Irvine.

Newport Beach's District 1 race offers a host of political newcomers competing for the peninsula-area seat. Tech-sector businessman Michael Glenn, former Irvine Co. executive Diane Dixon and Harbor Commissioner Joe Stapleton come from diverse professional backgrounds.

The other fight actually involves a guy who promotes boxing. Fight Club OC promoter Roy Englebrecht, a parks commissioner, is getting into the political ring with Planning Commissioner Timothy Brown in the Eastbluff-Newport Center area's District 4 contest.

In the 2nd District Orange County supervisorial race, political watchers speculated that GOP leaders chose Michelle Steel of the State Board of Equalization as heir apparent to termed-out Supervisor John Moorlach. Then Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) got in the contest, saying he wanted someone with deep Orange County roots to represent the district since Steel moved to Surfside from Los Angeles County. Others with name identification — Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carchio, former H.B. Mayor Don Hansen and Coast Community College District Trustee Jim Moreno — round out a competitive field.

I look forwarding to discussing the issues with these candidates — and any others who get in the races — this spring. Here are the dates for the Feet to the Fire Forums we have planned so far:

•7 p.m. April 17, 74th Assembly District, Costa Mesa Community Center, 1845 Park Ave.

•7 p.m. April 24, Orange County supervisor, Costa Mesa Community Center.

•7 p.m. Sept. 18, Costa Mesa City Council, Costa Mesa Community Center.

•7 p.m. Oct 1, Newport Beach City Council, OASIS Senior Center, 801 Narcissus Ave., Newport Beach.

I'll let you know in this space if we're going to take on the Costa Mesa charter and any other area races. You can also find updates at feet2thefireforum.com.

JOHN CANALIS is the editor for the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot and Huntington Beach Independent. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and john.canalis@latimes.com.