Baker: Newport Beach Voters Overwhelmingly Support Museum House Referendum Petition in Under Two Weeks

Newport Beach residents Jean Watt and Jack Skinner turn in over 13,000 signatures to City Clerk.

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At a special called meeting November 29, the Newport Beach City Council (Council) approved a General Plan Amendment(GPA) to allow a 25 story, 300-foot-tall, luxury condo tower, the Museum House, over the objections of several thousand residents. This was an egregious example of spot zoning and piecemeal planning to favor a single entity. Maybe they did this because they believed that it was good for the city and knew it would bring in tens of millions of dollars in developer fees. Maybe they did it because their campaign manager, Dave Ellis, was also a lobbyist for the Related Companies of California (Related Companies), the Museum House developer.

Knowing that a local citizen group, Line in the Sand PAC, was planning to run a referendum to bring the GPA to a citywide vote, the City Council attached the complete Environmental Impact Report (EIR), to their resolution. The Council’s actions were explicitly taken to make it as difficult as possible to referend their vote. This move made a potential referendum petition over 3,800 pages. Council member Ed Selich then attempted to add all the related planning commission minutes (thousands of pages) to the resolution, but the council “compromised” on just adding the complete EIR. Councilman Scott Peotter announced that he felt justified in doing this because opponents of the project had “lied”, apparently when they pointed out that the project would have traffic and water impacts. The Council’s intent was chilling: squash the referendum before it could start. The resulting petitions cost $46,506 to print and weighed 10 lbs. each. 2 tons of wasted paper (that no one read).

But this was just the beginning. The developer, Related Companies, launched into what many professionals in the field have called the dirtiest referendum campaign they had ever seen. Volunteers manning petition signing tables at markets were surrounded with hired goons, intimidating residents. In one case, they allegedly physically assaulted a man who came to the defense of the volunteers. Up to that moment, he had been in favor of the project. He testified to this occurrence at the Dec 13 CC meeting (video 35:00). Ironically, this escalated to the point where The Irvine Company, filed a lawsuit against OCMA Urban House, LLC, an affiliate of Related Companies, to force the hired ‘blockers’ off of their property.

Someone, presumably Related Companies, arranged for a fake petition to be circulated for one day and then blanketed the city with signs saying “Fake Petition, Don’t Sign”. door-hangerWithin hours, door hangers were appearing throughout the city with prepaid rescind postcards attached that would presumably take someone’s name off of a fake petition, but were actually used to remove names from the real petition. Newport Beach residents didn’t fall for it and only 85 of these rescind cards were turned into the city.

Then lawn signs and mailers appeared claiming that signing the petition put the signer at risk of identity theft, a patently absurd statement since the only information on the petition is the signer’s name and address, information readily available on line to anyone with a computer. The confusion and fear was palpable as was the growing sense of outrage against the developer, Related Companies. The underhanded tactics that were used led to even more outrage and incredulousness among residents.

Related Companies was getting desperate as more signatures were clearly being obtained. Their attorneys delivered a letter the day before the petitions were to be delivered to the City Clerk demanding that she refuse to accept the petitions because they were deficient. Their claim: 3 missing pages out of the 3,800 required by the City Council, the font size was too small and the color maps were printed in black and white. She, the city manager, and the city attorney took no action and accepted the approximately 450 petition packets

Out of the scrum of blockers, deceitful flyers, fake petitions, cable television ads, imposition of a 10lb petition by an unscrupulous City Council resolution, Line in the Sand PAC emerged carrying the ball to a score. On December 21, less than 2 weeks after the petitions hit the streets, over 2 tons of petitions carrying the signatures of 25% of the registered voters in the city (56,180), were delivered to the City Clerk.

The ball now goes back to the City Council. Will they emerge from their insulated echo chamber? Will the signatures of 13,730 of their neighbors cause them to engage with, rather than ignore their constituents? They will have the choice of putting the general plan amendment to a citywide vote or gracefully accepting the inevitability of the project’s defeat and withdraw their approval. If they choose to go forward with an election, they may have to provide each of the 56,180 voters with the 10 lb. package. There are estimates that this could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This from the same council that complained about the city’s expenses on the city hall. Way to go Team New to Newport.

Dennis Baker,  one of the founding member of the Line In The Sand Political Action Committee and the Treasurer of SPON

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