A contentious proposal by Newport Beach to hike fees for residential docks in city-owned areas of Newport Harbor is heating up this week, with critics alleging that city officials broke the state open-meetings law.

In a letter to city officials on Friday, an attorney for the Newport Beach Dock Owners Association accused three City Council members of breaking the Ralph M. Brown Act by meeting in secret on the issue.

“We are gravely concerned that the full council will be relying on the recommendation of a governmental body that did not comply with all of the constitutional protections of the Brown Act,” wrote Steve Baric of the Baric & Tran law firm. “My clients are fully prepared to explore all remedies under law to ensure their rights are protected.”

Three of the seven council members met several times in recent weeks as an ad hoc committee that officially expired in March 2011, according to Baric.

He claims the public wasn’t invited to participate.

Good-government advocates have expressed concern over ad hoc committees, with some viewing the secret meetings as a tactic for elected leaders to skirt the Brown Act while still making policy in secret.

In this case, open-government expert Terry Francke said officials most likely didn’t violate the law if they kept their committee to three members, that is, less than a majority.

Though it’s certainly raised criticism over how much public participation the council really wants on the issue. It’s expected to be decided during a 4 p.m. City Council meeting Tuesday.

The city’s plan would raise the annual fees from a flat $100 per dock to 52.5 cents per square foot of dock space. That would raise most fees to more than $400, with some larger yacht docks costing more than $3,000 a year.

City officials say the extra money is needed to help pay for increasing harbor costs, which now top $24.4 million a year. At present the city has $10.5 million in revenues, less than half the amount needed.

The bulk of those costs — more than 70 percent — are for public safety, according to a city staff report.

Council members last month seemed to be moving full steam ahead with their plans until residents threatened to boycott the city’s treasured Christmas boat parade, then appeared in droves at a public meeting on the issue.

“We’re given this proposal that simply has so many issues in it,” Kristine Thagard, an attorney for the Newport Beach Dock Owners Association, told the council on Nov. 28. “The problem is when we rush to judgment, bad decisions get made. Bad results occur,” Thagard said.

Council members got the message, postponing their decision to Tuesday. They still seemed intent on ultimately raising the fees, however, saying they need the extra cash to maintain the harbor.

After hearing more than two dozen residents speak last month, the council also acquiesced to concerns about insurance requirements and yearly fee increases to the consumer price index.

“What we are about here is for each participant to pay what is fair for that participant,” Councilman Michael Henn said at the most recent meeting. “We have really tried to think hard about how to fairly apply this in a way that’s appropriate.”

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

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