A dock-owners’ association claims a subcommittee did not abide by the state’s open-meetings laws.
/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
NEWPORT BEACH – A contingent of private dock owners have filed a lawsuit against the city in response to the recent increase in dock fees.
Bayfront homeowners and others pack the Newport Beach City Council Chamber before the start of the City Council meeting in December. The Council was hearing public comment on a proposed dock tax.
KEVIN SULLIVAN, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The lawsuit alleges that, as far back as 2010, City Council members involved in talks on harbor fees did not adequately abide by the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, meaning their informal meetings were not properly conducted in public view or with legal notice.
During November and December 2012 public hearings on private-dock fee increases, Newport Beach Dock Owners Association attorneys Kristine Thagaard and Steve Baric, along with other private dock owners, threatened a lawsuit, claiming the subcommittee looking at harbor user fees met without public notice and posted no public agendas – in violation of the Brown Act.
Despite the warning, the City Council voted 5-1 to increase private-dock permit fees from $100 annually to 52.5 cents per square foot, which can amount to three to 10 times the previous fee.
The fee raise is expected to be phased in over the next five years. After that, the rate will be set according the Consumer Price Index, with a 2 percent cap toward increasing or decreasing the rate.”We expect behavior like this in Castro’s Cuba or the city of Bell, not in Newport Beach,” McCaffrey said in a prepared statement.
In response to the lawsuit threats, Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said during the Dec. 11 meeting that the formation of an ad-hoc group by councilmembers Edward Selich, Michael Henn and then-councilmember Stephen Rosansky was not a violation of the Brown Act, as the group was one short of a quorum. .
The city sent a letter Friday to Baric rejecting the lawsuit’s claims of Brown Act violations.
“The group was less than a quorum of the City Council, so the Brown Act doesn’t apply,” Harp said following the Feb. 12 City Council meeting. “We went back and took another look at it, given the allegations being made, and we don’t see any violations.”
The lawsuit also alleges the harbor fees subcommittee was scheduled to be terminated March 31, 2011, but was continued and restructured when the talks moved to private dock fees and Councilwoman Nancy Gardner replaced Selich.
Harp said the restructured group formed “organically,” and operated as a working group, not a formal group created through council action.
“Although (the group) was initially only to meet for a limited period of time and for a limited issue, the committee has extended past its initial mandate,” the lawsuit states. “The committee in effect became a standing committee of the City Council. As such, it was required to comply with the requirements of the Brown Act. Here, this committee failed to do so.”
Stop the Dock Tax attorney Baric said the subcommittee’s Brown Act violations have tainted the recommendations sent up to City Council, and all matters brought to the council must be reconsidered.
“The residential dock tax and all the multitude of new taxes on harbor businesses would need to be publicly reheard, and re-voted,” Baric said.
Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff will host two public workshops for homeowners and dock owners affected by the dock-fee increase to discuss questions on how the new dock fee will be assessed and the new rates. The meetings are scheduled from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the old City Hall site, 3300 Newport Blvd.
Contact the writer: [email protected] or 714-796-2468