Newport residents seek court order to block dock fee hike
By DEEPA BHARATH
NEWPORT BEACH – The Newport Beach Dock Owners Association plans to go to court Tuesday to seek an injunction against the city’s collection of increased dock fees from residents, according to an attorney for the group.
Attorney Steve Baric said the city is hiding the dock fees in the water bill and putting residents in the “untenable position of being forced to pay.” The Dock Owners Association filed a lawsuit on Feb. 12 against the city alleging council members involved in talks on harbor fees did not adequately abide by the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act or open meeting laws.
City officials have said that they have not violated open meeting laws and that there is nothing wrong in the manner in which they are currently collecting the increased dock rents.
Bob McCaffrey, chairman of the Newport Beach Dock Owners Association, said in a released statement that the group granted the city’s request for extra time to respond to their Brown Act lawsuit.
“Little did we know that we were being set up so they could begin the Dock Tax assessment using the bi-monthly utility bill to trigger the tax,” he said.
McCaffrey said there is no permit to sign or document for residents to review.
“The Dock Tax is buried on a bill that includes a trash recycling fee, water, sewer and ‘other agency’ charges,” he said. “It is deceptive, tricky and dishonest.”
He said when residents pay their utility bill that includes the dock fee, they have in essence agreed to the terms and conditions established by the city.
City spokeswoman Tara Finnigan said the city has been listing dock-related fees in municipal services statement for at least the last 10 years.
“The old rent ($100) was listed on their (utility) statements,” she said. “Now, the new rent appears on their statements. There’s nothing new about that line item.”
Finnigan also said that the city committed no Brown Act violations and that it has already submitted a request to the State Lands Commission to establish a Harbor Tidelands Fund to ensure that all increased rent collected in the harbor is spent specifically on harbor-related improvements such as dredging and sea walls.
“Ironically, we’ve learned that the (Dock Owners Association) is attempting to delay the State Lands Commission process, the one which our request to earmark that money for the harbor would be considered,” she said.
The injunction would prevent the city from collecting the increased rents before the lawsuit is resolved, Baric said Thursday. With a pending lawsuit, it is premature for the city to collect the dock fee through the utility bill or any other mechanism, he said. Baric said he will also ask the court to order setting up a trust or escrow account where dock owners can deposit the fees until the lawsuit is resolved, without fear of the city seizing their pier for non-payment.
Baric said this type of legal action is fairly common in commercial settings, but that he has not come across it in a municipal setting.
The dock fee increases came late last year for both commercial and residential properties. Some residents even boycotted the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade to show their displeasure at the city’s decision to increase the fees. Although many opponents call the fee hike a “tax increase,” city officials have maintained that it is not a tax and that it is rent that dock owners must pay for use of public tidelands.
The next court hearing has been scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.