Just as its first meeting in the city's new council chambers was set to begin at 7 p.m. across town Tuesday evening, instead of its scheduled time of 6:30 p.m., the Newport Beach City Council voted to increase fees for residential piers in the face of Christmas Boat Parade boycott threats and continuing outcry.
Councilwoman Leslie Daigle voted against the fee hikes, which raised fees for pier owners on state-owned, city-administered tidelands from a flat $100 annually, to 52.5 cents per square foot of usable dock space.
Councilman Ed Selich abstained from voting because he owns a residential dock. The vote was 5 to 1.
For likely the last time, harbor stakeholders packed into the old Newport Boulevard council chambers to protest the proposed rate increases, citing a litany of concerns ranging from alleged transparency law violations on the part of the council to questions about the method of determining a dock's square footage.
Council members have said the increases are necessary to comply with state rules requiring that the city charge fair market rents for the use of state-owned lands and that the money will be used only on harbor infrastructure improvements.
The residential pier rate increases are the most recent step in an ongoing process, which has also included raising rents for commercial harbor uses on public tidelands, they've said.
Opponents, many from the Stop the Dock Tax group, have repeatedly said the increases are hastily imposed money grabs by the city.
Tuesday, some speakers said they were merely trying to slow the process down.
"Most residents believe a reasonable adjustment to the dock fee is acceptable," said Balboa Peninsula resident Pete Pallette, who has spoken on behalf of Stop the Dock Tax. "Your arrogant and dismissive approach has created an atmosphere of distrust."
He added that if the council agreed to postpone the vote, "we will agree to cancel the boycott. Otherwise, game on."
Gary Sherwim, head of Visit Newport Beach, who has helped plan the Christmas Boat Parade, urged audience members not to "confuse what separates us with what brings us together."
While even "unpleasant" debates are a sign of a healthy democracy, he said, the boat parade should be kept out of the issue.
"It doesn't make sense to penalize people who have not played a role in this issue," he said. "The fact is we will have a parade and there are more people signing up every day."
After about two and a half hours of heated public comment and discussion among council members at a 4 p.m. special meeting—which was itself a continuation of a Nov. 28 meeting—the council opted not to delay the vote.
Rush Hill, who was chosen as Mayor Pro Tem later in the evening, said there would've been no point.
"A lot of good people who've been coming up to testify this evening, they have bad information," he said. "Misinformation goes out and at the next meeting it's back."
The council also decided some of the finer points of the fee-calculating process, including that the rates will not be subject to Consumer Price Index adjustments during the phase-in period, through 2017. After that point, the CPI adjustments will be capped at 2% increases.
Pier owners will be able to rent out dock space, but they will have to declare their intent to do so to the city and pay a small commercial marina rate, which is higher than the residential rate.