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Suit haunts dock fee meeting

Open houses are not marked by acrimony, but opponents are on hand to drum up support for legal action.

February 20, 2013|By Jill Cowan

At the first of two open houses designed to help dock owners navigate Newport Beach's new residential pier permitting process last week, a handful of residents sat scattered throughout the old City Council Chambers — not a huge turnout compared to the hundreds that showed up for hearings on the same subject just a few months ago.

And while the tone of the Feb. 14 discussion wasn't exactly chipper, largely absent was the bitter anger that characterized the fight between Newport Beach harbor stakeholders and the City Council over fee increases for the use of public tidelands.

Absent, that is, until Stop the Dock Tax Chairman Bob McCaffrey stood up to announce a lawsuit aimed at halting the increases on residential piers, which are set to be phased in through 2017.

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"What we're discussing here today will be moot," he said.

The lawsuit, which was filed last week in Orange County Superior Court, alleges that the council violated the state's open-meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, by acting on suggestions developed by an "ad hoc committee on updating harbor charges," which rose to the level of a standing committee.

That three-person committee, the suit argues, continued meeting long after its March 2011 expiration date without prior public notice and changed the committee's membership without telling residents — all in violation of the Brown Act.

"Subsequent to the creation of this committee, the city has tripled mooring fees [and] voted to increase rents for harbor users operating businesses on public tidelands, and the committee recommended that the city charge the private dock owners a tax for their private dock," a court document says. "However, the committee has never published an agenda, meeting date or minutes for those meetings."

The Brown Act requires that most meetings of elected officials be announced in advance and be open to the public.

Assistant City Attorney Michael Torres said Tuesday that while he hadn't had the opportunity to review the complaint in detail, generally the city stood by the position it took in the face of letters warning of the lawsuit: "We didn't violate the Brown Act."

In a Feb. 8 response to a January letter from attorney and state Republican Party Vice Chairman Steve Baric, City Attorney Aaron Harp wrote that the committee was actually an "informal working group" that did not include a council quorum.

Therefore, he contended, it was not subject to the Brown Act.

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