Development projects, city debt and the future of Mariners’ Mile were among topics discussed Wednesday night during Speak Up Newport’s City Council candidate forum at the Newport Beach Civic Center.
About 100 people attended the event, moderated by Michele Gile, the Orange County reporter for KCBS-TV/2 and KCAL-TV/9.
Newport voters will decide Nov. 8 who should fill three available seats on the City Council.
Harbor Commissioner Brad Avery and law student Shelley Henderson are running for the District 2 seat, which represents Newport Heights and Newport Crest. The district’s current council member, Tony Petros, is not running for re-election. Henderson did not attend the forum.
Businessman and community activist Mike Glenn, businessman Lee Lowrey and retired educator Jeff Herdman are vying for the District 5 seat, which represents Balboa Island, Harbor Island, the Fashion Island area and a portion of Big Canyon. Councilman Ed Selich, who currently represents District 5, is termed out this year.
Attorney and city Finance Committee member Will O’Neill, attorney Phil Greer and former Planning Commissioner Fred Ameri are running for the District 7 seat, which represents Newport Coast and Newport Ridge. Councilman Keith Curry, who currently represents the area, also is termed out this year.
All of the candidates spoke in favor of Banning Ranch LLC’s proposal to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres of coastal land.
The California Coastal Commission denied the project this month, citing a lack of cohesion between the developer and commission staff members who recommended the project be reduced to about one-third of the proposed size.
Avery said he would prefer the development to be about half the size.
Ameri, who in previous forums said he believed the development was too large but that the property owner has the right to build something on the land, said Wednesday that he believes it’s a good project that would clean up an old oil field.
The candidates also weighed in on the city’s efforts to rejuvenate Mariners’ Mile, a stretch of West Coast Highway between Newport Boulevard and Dover Drive.
In 2011, the council identified Mariners’ Mile as one of six zones needing revitalization. Work in other areas, including Corona del Mar, Balboa and Lido villages, West Newport and Santa Ana Heights, has been underway for years.
However, a decision on how best to use the narrow Mariners’ stretch, which is hemmed in by bluffs on one side and Newport Harbor on the other, has long eluded city leaders.
City Council hopefuls spoke about improving the area’s walkability through sidewalk expansions and maintaining the current traffic-lane count.
Greer said the city should use recent projects in Corona del Mar, such as a sidewalk expansion along East Coast Highway, as a template for how to make Mariners’ Mile more pedestrian-friendly.
Avery said he also supports making the area safer for pedestrians. “The traffic is just violent,” Avery said. “Cars are going so fast, it’s uncomfortable to walk it right now.”
Glenn said that while landowners along Mariners’ Mile likely would have most of the say in how the area develops, he indicated he would support a boardwalk and shuttle service there.
Lowrey also supported building a boardwalk.
O’Neill said he’d like to see a more open, walkable harbor area but is relying on residents to share their visions.
Herdman said he wants the area to be a nautical village with open harbor views.
Ameri said the city should maintain the same number of traffic lanes on the highway and perhaps remove street parking to be able to widen sidewalks.
The candidates also were asked about a recent proposal supported by Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon and Councilman Scott Peotter to place a charter amendment on the local ballot asking voters whether they want to require public approval before the city can use a certificate of participation or a lease revenue bond greater than $10 million.
A certificate of participation, a financial instrument for issuing bonds to fund capital improvements, was used in funding part of the Civic Center development project.
Lease revenue bonds are secured by lease payments made by the party, often a municipality, leasing the facilities that were paid for by the bond. Newport does not have any lease revenue bonds.
In August, the City Council decided to hold off on the ballot measure proposal and sent it to the Finance Committee for consideration.
Avery, Lowrey, Greer and Glenn indicated support for giving voters a say on city debt. Ameri said he agrees with it “in concept.”
“It’s the government. They are always going to want to get into your pocket,” Glenn said. “We need to protect ourselves through a voting mechanism. We never know who’s going to be on the City Council in five, 10, 20 years. We need to be able to have that power ourselves as citizens.”
O’Neill said he’s looking forward to discussing the proposal at the Finance Committee but that it isn’t ready for the November ballot.
Herdman said he strongly opposes the measure because it could limit the city’s ability to fund important projects, especially during an emergency.
“As a city councilman, I would not want to have my hands tied,” he said.
Voters in November will consider a different ballot measure spearheaded by Curry that asks whether a super-majority vote of the council should be required to approve tax increases.
Today we begin Fred’s Fun Facts, a whimsical review of council candidate Fred Ameri’s wild claims.
The Upper Newport Bay is an ecological treasure that is one of the last coastal habitats for endangered species.
For a decade the city council, led by Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, worked with federal, state, and local agencies to secure funding for Lower & Upper Bay dredging.
She met with Representatives Ken Calvert, Ed Royce, and Senator Dianne Feinstein to plead our case for federal dredging funds. She was successful, and we are indebted to her.
With the campaign season upon us, we now learn that council candidate Fred Ameri is taking credit for securing $5 million in Back Bay dredging funds.
No one remembers Ameri’s involvement. Fred’s Fun Fact #1. (many more to come)
What else is Fred Ameri fabricating?
In the hit CBS TV series “BrainDead,” bugs from outer space land in Washington, D.C., eating politicians’ brains and contributing to some very weird behaviors by these folks.
The show is masterfully written, funny and one of my favorites this summer.
As I was watching the other night, I wondered, “Have space bugs made their way to Newport?”
You have to admit, things are getting pretty odd in this town’s council race, and it’s as good an explanation as any, I guess.
Take last week when resident William Stewart filed a lawsuit in O.C. Superior Courtagainst O.C. Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley and Newport Beach City Clerk Leilani Brown in hopes of forcing council candidate Fred Ameri use his given first name, Farrokh, on the ballot.
The intent here, in my view, was clearly to play on residents’ private prejudices against those of Middle Eastern descent.
Ameri, who is of Persian descent, blames opponent Will O’Neill, as well as O’Neill’s campaign supporter, Newport Councilman Scott Peotter, whose brother is the attorney for Stewart and O’Neill’s political consultant, Dave Ellis, for these antics.
But O’Neill says he has no acquaintance with the plaintiff, the lawyer in this case or any of it.
To me he’s either totally out of touch with his handlers or turning a blind eye to their campaign tactics.
Either way it’s not good.
The whole situation takes this race to an all-time low. But did the political brain trust, who thought this was a good tactic, actually help Ameri here?
“Absolutely, this has helped my campaign,” says Ameri. “People are calling like never before. They’re making me the most famous guy in Newport.”
Though Ameri is outraged, labeling this campaign tactic “racist,” it’s not like he didn’t anticipate it.
Last February, Ameri and O.C. Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker asked Kelley’s office for an official opinion on Ameri’s first name.
Taking into consideration Ameri has used Fred since 1998 on his voter registration, Kelley writes, “If he came to file for office at our front counter, we would accept this name as his ballot name.”
“I believe that it is in his best interest to keep his name as it has been registered for 18 years,” Kelly continues. “Of course, this could always be challenged in a court of law, but since this is how he is known in the community, I think he has a good case. I am not aware of any rules that are violated by this.”
I called Ellis, my favorite “frenemy,” to talk about Ameri claiming he’s the real culprit behind the name issue lawsuit.
He denies it.
“I am also responsible for world famine and the Zika virus,” Ellis jokes. “I’d be happy to pay for Fred’s therapy.”
Ellis went on to explain another interesting twist. He says last summer potential candidates Phil Greer, Ameri and O’Neill wanted to retain his services for this election. Ellis met with each of them before choosing O’Neill in December.
Ellis says he sent emails to Ameri to stop telling people he’d hired him.
“You proceeded to spend three months telling folks that you had retained my services, which was wrong of you to say,” Ellis writes. “I never led you on or ‘tricked’ you. When you asked me to print remit envelopes for you, I declined because I did not to lead you on.”
As you can imagine, Ellis has strong opinions about O’Neill’s opponents.
“Over the next few weeks, you will hear all sorts of whining from Fred Ameri and Phil Greer about negative campaigning, etc.,” Ellis says.
And he gave me his reasons for not taking them on as clients.
“Greer is a fiscal train wreck with nearly $700,000 in current state and federal tax liens pending against him,” he claims, and, “Ameri spent 30 years at RBF Consulting Engineers. They provided engineering services for the development of most of South Orange County — around 1.5 million people — and now he’s anti-development.”
Greer says the $700,000 figure Ellis throws out is wildly inaccurate.
“No, it was never $700,000,” he tells me. “At best, it is $250,000. There are a ton of duplicate liens and other mistakes by the IRS. What Dave has done is add up everything regardless of whether it is duplicate or not and come up with an unsubstantiated number.”
Greer further explains that there had been an ongoing 2002 IRS dispute, which is being resolved, “reducing the claimed tax liability for 2002/2004 from approximately $160,000 to approximately $40,000, amended returns can be filed for the other impacted years, balances, if any, can be paid, and will be resolved shortly.”
Greer confirms he met with Ellis last summer, but not to hire him. He says they met because Greer’s wife, Arlene, had initially showed interest in running for office.
“My meeting with Dave was to determine how nasty he would get if Arlene was to actually become a candidate,” says Greer. “I was simply being proactive in protecting my wife. I have no intent or interest in associating myself with the sort of campaigns Dave runs.”
Yep, Gotta love those space bugs…
BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.