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Daily Pilot

Dock fee opponents say process wasn't open

They allege violation of state law that allows public to attend meetings. City attorney says the Brown Act, which required a quorum, wasn't violated.

By Jill Cowan

4:12 PM PST, December 10, 2012

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A group opposed to Newport Beach's proposed residential pier rent increases took a new tack in protesting the fee hikes Friday, alleging that a committee of council members has been meeting to discuss the rents in violation of California's open meetings law.

In a letter sent on behalf of the Newport Beach Dock Owners Assn. Friday, attorney and state Republican Party Vice Chairman Steve Baric argues that an ad hoc committee of council members formed in July of 2010 continued to meet after its mandate had expired, thus making it a standing committee subject to rules found in the Ralph M. Brown Act.

That committee, which initially consisted of Councilman Mike Henn (who was mayor at the time), Steve Rosansky and Ed Selich, has changed its membership and has continued to make recommendations without informing the public according to those rules, the letter asserts.

The Brown Act, the letter points out, requires any meeting during which a majority of council members discusses city business be treated like a formal meeting and be open to the public.

In conclusion, the letter asks that "the City Council not act on these recommendations of this committee until these potential Brown Act issues be resolved..." and says Baric's clients won't hesitate to take legal action against the city.

Baric said Monday his clients may pursue a civil injunction if they aren't heard out.

Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said that the allegations appear to be misguided on several fronts.

"Three council members can get together and work on a project without it being subject to the Brown Act," he said. "That's not a quorum of the [seven-member] City Council."

Furthermore, he said, the group that has been meeting since the ad hoc committee's expiration in 2011 — comprised of council members Rosansky, Henn and Mayor Nancy Gardner — is a "working group," rather than a committee created by resolution of the council.

So, he said, any recommendations made by that working group don't carry any formal weight.

The biggest difference between a committee and a working group, Harp said, is that a committee has a specific scope and is charged with certain tasks. A working group, he said, is a group of individual council members looking at the issues and working on a project.

Baric, however, questioned that explanation.

"This is the weird, bizarre question: On the one hand you have this weird ad hoc committee, then somehow that sunsets, that morphs into a working group and it continues to make recommendations to this whole council," he said. "So what does that mean? How does that make any sense?"

Baric said his clients hope to have "a series of meetings with the council" to resolve the issue and to be privy to the information that was discussed in the working group's meetings. Without that information, he said, the multiple public hearings the council has held on the issue violate the Brown Act.

In any case, Harp said, the public has been plenty engaged in the harbor charges issue.

"It just seems like kind of a far-fetched argument that they're making here," Harp said. "In Newport, everybody really is watching."

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @jillcowan