The Stop the Dock Tax folks are suing the city of Newport Beach alleging that, as far back as 2010, council members involved in talks on harbor fees didn’t adequately follow the state’s open meeting laws and violated the Brown Act.
City officials say they did nothing wrong.
When O.C. Register reported the news about the lawsuit last week, I was a little surprised by some reader comments that painted residents opposed to the fees as basically wealthy whiners.
Over the past months, I have spoken with organizers of the Stop the Dock Tax movement and residents who consider the fee increases unfair.
I found the majority weren’t so upset by the fee increases as much as they were about the process the Newport City Council took with them.
After the council voted to hike the fees, it didn’t take a crystal ball to predict a lawsuit would ensue.
The city could have easily avoided this if the council had taken more time to listen to residents and quell concerns.
Back in November I asked Councilman Rush Hill, “Why not take more time with this issue?”
He felt residents had been given ample time to weigh in.
It’s been my experience that when two sides are as far apart in communication — as in this case — something has gone terribly wrong.
The fact that the city is now holding meetings to explain to residents how the dock fee increases will be implemented is evidence they didn’t vet this issue properly in the first place.
Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, who voted against the dock fee hikes, tells me there was more to consider and has objections as to how Tidelands money has been used.
She questions the city’s motives in increasing fees and moving money from the Tidelands Fund into the city’s General Fund.
“More than 80 percent of existing Tidelands revenues (beach parking, Bay Club lease, etc.), are used for employee compensation and public safety readiness,” Daigle said. “Less than 20 percent of Tidelands revenues have been going to bay projects.”
Daigle claims over the years Tidelands money, not used for projects, was transferred to the General Fund to pay for police, fire, and general services.
City Manager Dave Kiff says the Tidelands area includes the beaches and the bay, and revenues are spent there. Calls for emergency medical response occur on beaches, so a portion is spent on paramedics and lifeguard operations, salaries and benefits.
Daigle estimates between 1998 and 2008 about $9 million to $10 million a year of Tidelands’ money moved into the General Fund.
Kiff disagreed, saying, “Tidelands’ revenue doesn’t move anywhere.”
Daigle also said she wonders what part of the city’s $100 million reserve includes Tidelands’ money from deferred maintenance on the bay.
She says dock owners should be concerned about the future because the city’s position is that dock owners don’t have title to the public waters under their docks.
“They will now lease the area from the city for a defined period of time. One year,” she said. “The city can require you to remove the dock in front of your home to host an eel grass nursery. By a simple amendment to the municipal code, the city could decide to lease the public waters under the dock to a different party.”
Kiff said leases have always been one year and state law mandates the land underneath docks is owned by the people of California, not homeowners and nothing is changing.
“To say the city would take docks for eelgrass or give them to someone else seems to be just an attempt to frighten people,” he said.
Eelgrass beds grow in shallow bays and coves, and are a food source for numerous species of sea life.
So why should you care about this issue if you aren’t a dock owner?
A bigger picture may be emerging.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the 900 or so living on the water affected by the fees are among the wealthier residents in Newport.
They’re also the ones most likely to donate generously to council campaigns, giving them some political clout.
Now consider The Stop the Dock Tax movement engaged heavy-hitter Dave Ellis — a guy with close ties to many on council – to help them with their cause.
With all this supposed political might, these folks still got hosed and their concerns were ignored by this council.
If it happened to this group, it could happen to any with an issue before this council.
We saw what happened over the last several years in Costa Mesa when council members ignored pleas from residents to take their time in making decisions regarding the proposed city charter and layoffs.
It resulted in residents pushing back at the polls.
Why Newport leaders haven’t learned from their neighbor’s experience is anyone’s guess, but it should serve as a wake-up call for all Newport residents.
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