Developer’s Meeting on Beach Bonfires Still Unexplained

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A proposed ban on beach bonfires in Southern California was apparently influenced by a private meeting between a powerful air quality official and a Newport Beach property developer, a document obtained by Voice of OC shows.

Bill Burke, chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, discussed the issue with developer John Hamilton and three unspecified “associates” at a luxury hotel in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, Burke wrote in a mandatory disclosure to the California Coastal Commission.

Hamilton “ask [sic] me that if in my roles as AQMD member and Coastal Commissioner if I would look into the districts [sic] position on the particulant [sic] matter and over regulating same. I agreed to do that,” Burke wrote.

After the meeting at the Luxe Hotel, Burke publicly announced that AQMD would take up the issue and that he was “100 percent certain” that beach bonfires would be banned.

The document provides a window into how AQMD came to take on the issue of bonfires just as Southern Californians flock to Diamond Bar Friday morning to speak before the AQMD board votes on banning many of the bonfires.

Efforts at understanding that process have proved exceeding difficult, with the agency refusing to disclose internal emails regarding any kind of policymaking.

Key questions about the Luxe Hotel meeting also remain unanswered. The participants don’t want to reveal who Hamilton’s three “associates” were or exactly what was discussed.

Burke didn’t return a message seeking comment, and Hamilton declined to identify the other attendees.

“I do not want to get into it,” said Hamilton, citing the nasty tone of the bonfire debate and a recent case of “Keep Your Mitts Off Our Pits” stickers being plastered on a neighbor’s home.

He also declined to detail what was discussed, other than “it was nothing but asking information about the AQMD” after he learned about harmful health effects from bonfires.

The proposed ban has sparked a backlash from local residents. This morning’s hearing was expected to draw a massive crowd.

Supporters said the proposal is based on scientific evidence of health effects, such as chronic bronchitis, from breathing wood smoke.

Hamilton compared the fire rings to second-hand tobacco smoke.

“You have no right to blow cigarette smoke into my face,” he said. “Just put [fire pits] in a safe area.”

Opponents, meanwhile, claim Burke pressured AQMD staff to pursue the ban on behalf of wealthy Corona del Mar residents.

What is known is that Newport Beach’s efforts to rid itself of bonfire pits were in trouble heading into a March 6 Coastal Commission meeting.

Staff at the Coastal Commission, which protects public access to beaches among other tasks, were set to recommend that the rings stay in place.

But following the Luxe Hotel meeting, Burke pursued bringing the matter over to AQMD.

“Don’t come to me and say I need fire rings to have a good time,” Burke said at the March 6 Coastal Commission meeting.

Burke, an appointee of Assembly Speaker John Perez, has served on the AQMD board for more than 20 years.

He ultimately revealed the Luxe Hotel meeting as part of mandatory disclosure but didn’t specify who Hamilton’s three “acquaintances” were.

State law requires Coastal Commission members to publicly report outside conversations with an “interested person,” also known as ex parte communications.

The dueling camps on this issue geared up for battle Thursday, with shuttle service planned to take residents to the meeting.

And a poll released Thursday by an activist group, Friends of the Fire Rings, indicates that 86 percent of Newport Beach residents oppose removing the rings.

The poll was overseen by political consultant John Lewis.

A host of agencies have filed resolutions opposing the ban, and politicians such as Orange County Supervisors John Moorlach and Todd Spitzer have made an issue of it.

Orange County’s two representatives on the 13-member AQMD board — Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Puldio — have indicated they don’t support a ban.

Also on Thursday, AQMD officials notified Voice of OC they would turn over more emails under a records request that has dragged on for three months.

The announcement came hours after Voice of OC reported that officials were illegally withholding records.

The new documents, however, were inaccessible after multiple attempts to load them using the correct computer software.

AQMD is also still violating the law by neither explaining in writing the specific reasons for withholding records nor stating when it will finish complying with the records request.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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