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2 Complaints Against Newport Cite Violations of Open-Meeting Law

July 19, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Complaints charging Newport Beach with violating the state's open-meeting law have been filed with the Orange County district attorney's office.

The allegations center on two closed-door votes by the Newport Beach City Council in recent months authorizing the hiring of lobbyists. The lobbyists were approved as subcontractors to law firms working on the city's goal of extending flight and noise restrictions at John Wayne Airport.

The public wasn't notified of the votes or told of the hires. Former Irvine Co. executive Gary H. Hunt and William D. Lowery of Washington, D.C., are being paid a total of $455,000 through contracts that end Dec. 31.

"We've received two complaints [against Newport Beach], and they are both under review," district attorney spokeswoman Tori Richards said Thursday.

One complaint was filed by Greenlight, an organization in Newport Beach that pushed for the passage of a city measure that ties development rights to traffic capacity. Hunt, then at Irvine Co., coordinated the company's $440,000 campaign against the initiative. The second complaint was filed by a Newport Beach activist.

Greenlight spokesman Phil Arst said in a statement that the group supports the city's efforts to continue flight and noise restrictions at John Wayne but does not condone its secret meetings.

The general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition said the city should be challenged. "I'm happy to see this is being addressed," Terry Francke said.

The Ralph M. Brown Act allows city councils to meet privately to discuss actual or possible litigation and to hire attorneys to handle lawsuits. Any votes or action taken must be reported, including the vote or abstention of every member present.

Newport Beach City Atty. Robert Burnham said he was authorized to hire the lobbyists and to brief the council under "pending litigation" because the lobbyists are helping promote the city's legal strategies for keeping the airport restrictions. Neither Hunt nor Lowery is an attorney in California.

Maintaining restrictions at John Wayne Airport has been a battle in Newport Beach for 30 years. In March, the City Council agreed in closed session to hire California Strategies, headed by Hunt. In May, the council agreed to hire Lowery's firm.

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