In what is certain to become the most expensive campaign of its kind in Newport Beach history, the Irvine Co. already has spent nearly half a million dollars trying to persuade voters to approve its controversial expansion of Newport Center.
According to mandatory disclosure reports filed Thursday, the Irvine Co. has spent $449,938--$308,220 of which was spent between Oct. 12 and Nov. 8--to promote the passage of Measure A in a special election Nov. 25 in Newport Beach. The measure would allow the Irvine Co. to go forward with a $300-million expansion of Newport Center and Fashion Island.
Another $63,000 in contributions has been raised by Citizens for a Better Newport, the residents' group that supports Measure A. The treasurer of the group, John Killefer, said Thursday that part of the money was spent on mailing absentee ballots to about 6,000 Newport Beach voters.
Absentee ballots are considered to be crucial to the passage of Measure A because many Newport Beach residents are expected to be out of town during the week of the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
The citizens' group opposing Measure A, known as Gridlock, has raised only $100 during the current reporting period, bringing its total contributions to $7,851. Gridlock reported spending $6,467 to date.
The Newport Center expansion, which would be completed over the next 15 years, would include three major office towers, up to 590 additional residential units, shops and cultural facilities and $40 million in road improvements.
"When you consider what we have invested in this plan . . . we don't think what we are spending is unreasonable," said Mike Stockstill, the Irvine Co.'s director of corporate affairs. "We think it's our responsibility to communicate to the community on this issue. It's a complex issue that there's a lot of misunderstanding about."
Stockstill said the company will spend more money getting its message out by the time the campaign is over, although he said he did not know how much.
During a public forum sponsored by the civic group, "Speak Up Newport," Thursday night at the Balboa Bay Club, Gridlock founder Allan Beek commented on the financial disparity between the factions opposing and supporting Measure A.
"If money would buy an election, Beek told the audience of almost 200 people, "this one has already been won."
Beek, who earlier this month lost a bid for a Newport Beach City Council seat, added that he would not oppose the Irvine Co.'s plan if it wasn't for the "884,000 square feet" of proposed new office space. He and other opponents of Measure A argue that the three proposed office buildings would add 40,000 cars a day to the Newport Center area, causing further traffic congestion in and around Newport Beach.
Gridlock was formed last summer after the Newport Beach City Council voted 5 to 2 to approve the expansion plan. The grass-roots group successfully circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the question, and that referendum became Measure A.
The Irvine Co.'s massive expenditures on behalf of Measure A came up several times during the 90-minute forum Thursday night.
"It's absolutely ridiculous to spend a half million dollars on something like this," said Philip Sansone, who was elected to the Newport Beach City Council Nov. 4 and opposes Measure A. "You don't have to spend a lot of money. You have to have the people behind you."
Among the expenditures listed by the Irvine Co. in its spending disclosures were $273,000 to campaign consultants Nelson-Padberg Communications of Costa Mesa and $64,000 to the Irvine Co. itself for the time of 19 company employees who have been working in support of Measure A.
Other expenditures listed were $24,000 for a videotape promoting the Newport Center expansion that the Irvine Co. has shown to various neighborhood groups, $23,000 to the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center for "focus groups," in which small groups of citizens are asked for their perceptions of community issues, and $4,600 in full-page newspaper ads trumpeting "Traffic Solutions Now!"
Killefer and Norma Glover, who argued on behalf of Measure A Thursday night, said the traffic improvements planned by the Irvine Co. in conjunction with the Newport Center expansion would actually cut existing traffic congestion in Newport Beach.
Glover, a community activist, called the proposed expansion "one of the best plans ever presented to the city of Newport Beach."
"It will finally allow Newport Center to be completed and become our town center," she said.
Each side seemed to have its share of supporters in the audience. But those who came to learn about the project may have left still confused.
"I came in undecided, and I'm still undecided," said Dagmar Rios, 59, a publisher who lives in the North Bluff area of the city. "I think the arguments are very complex. I'm going to think about the issues at home quietly, away from all the personalities."