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Newport Council to Hear Report on Nichol's Remarks

City could censure the councilman for his comments about a planning commissioner.

June 08, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

The Newport Beach City Council on Tuesday will hear a city attorney's report on a topic close to home -- the conduct of one of its own.

Councilman Richard Nichols, who last month questioned the integrity of a planning commissioner, will get a public airing of his colleagues' comments on the matter and learn whether the council plans a formal rebuke.

The city attorney's report offers several options for council members, including adopting a resolution condemning Nichols' comments and considering a code of conduct for council members.

Nichols, a consulting engineer, suggested at a May 22 Planning Commission meeting that one of its member's votes was financially influenced. At issue was an application for a variance for the height of a building on Balboa Peninsula. A staff report had recommended denial of the variance, but it was being appealed and commissioners heard testimony from the applicant, his attorney, a neighbor and then Nichols.

Nichols cited the commission's approval of a zoning variance for another property a year before and Commissioner Larry Tucker noted the dissimilarities between the two cases.

According to the transcript, Nichols then said: "Now, I understand that one and the other are not the same, but it sure doesn't look good. It looks like you're taking money for this one."

A stunned commissioner said Nichols' comment was uncalled for, and Tucker said "that was beyond uncalled for. Nobody hired us to be the policymaker ... and none of us are for sale."

After the comments were reported in a newspaper and council members criticized Nichols, he wrote a letter of apology. He suggested that his comments were misinterpreted.

Nevertheless, the mayor asked the city attorney to investigate the incident and guide the council on its options for response.

City Atty. Robert Burnham said: "Based on my review of the transcript ... Nichols' remarks clearly implied that Commissioner Tucker's apparent opposition to this application was based on the receipt of money since, in the mind of Mr. Nichols, approval of the application was a 'no-brainer.' "

Tucker, a commissioner for 4 1/2 years, told The Times recently, "I may be the first official in the country accused of taking money to turn down a project." He said he has not demanded an apology because the council was quick to address the issue.

Burnham's report will be discussed at the meeting Tuesday. The council could end the matter with its comments, or consider further action.

"We've never dealt with anything like this," Mayor Steve Bromberg said. "Everyone has the right of free speech. At the same time there is a certain responsibility with the comments you make, and when you are a council member, you should be held to a higher standard of care."

Nichols said he's not cowed by the controversy. "I've been in hot water for a long time."

Rather, Nichols questions the way the Planning Department decides who gets a variance.

"Our planning processes are not giving equity in decisions," he said. "If two people came in with ... similar cases, you may get dissimilar results."

Dolores Otting, a resident who attends council meetings on a regular basis, said Nichols is a nice guy who made an honest mistake.

"They're making a big thing about an error in judgment," she said. "It's really sad that this had to grow to this size."

His colleagues suggest that Nichols, who is new to city government, still has a lot to learn.

"He's new to the job," Councilman John Heffernan said. "I was new to the job and I made a lot of mistakes. But I've learned to have my facts in order before speaking."

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