The heart of Measure L is simple: Should eight acres of city-owned waterfront land on the Balboa Peninsula be preserved as open space, or should it be rezoned for commercial development, paving the way for a luxury resort?
Newport Beach officials say that basic question has been lost in this municipal election, overshadowed by allegations of misdeeds at City Hall.
"There's no doubt in my mind that this has evolved into something that's peripheral to the main issue at hand," said Mayor Tod Ridgeway, who supports Measure L. "This has less to do with the project, and more to do with election politics."
The debate centers around the proposed Marinapark Resort, a 110-room hotel that resort designer Stephen Sutherland wants to build on the land, now occupied by mobile homes. Sutherland also has offered to build a Girl Scout house and community center and contribute at least $500,000 to remodeling of the nearby American Legion Post. The project would include restaurants, public parking and tennis courts.
Proponents say the project would provide $3 million annually in tax revenue and parking fees. And development as a park or other public facility would be expensive, they say. Opponents, including heiress Joan Irvine Smith, say city-owned property should be protected as one of the last publicly owned parcels of harbor-front property.
"Public parkland is one of the most valuable assets any community can have," Irvine Smith wrote in a letter to The Times.
Although the issue resembles a traditional tussle between developers and preservationists, the debate in recent weeks has focused on allegations by opponents that the project has been tainted by impropriety at City Hall. Opponents say they have uncovered several problems with the city's agreement with Sutherland. The most serious, they say, is the final contract itself, which was not voted on by the City Council or signed by the city clerk as required by the city charter.
In addition, they believe changes were made to the contract after it was signed. For example, they said, Sutherland's company was designated in most documents as a limited liability partnership, but that designation was later erased.
"There's just so much that seems not right," said council candidate John Buttolph, who opposes Measure L. "At the very best, it's a four-year history of incompetence, negligence and inattention. At worst, there's something shady going on."
Kim Thompson, the city's legal counsel on the issue, said the last-minute changes to the contract were inconsequential. He likened the deletion of "LLP" to correcting a misspelled word. Other changes, he said, were discussed at the council meeting.
The fact that the city clerk did not sign the contract could be a problem, unless the council designated the mayor and city attorney to sign instead, he said.
"I don't know what a court would say," said Thompson.
Buttolph and Richard Taylor, a Newport Beach attorney, said they are so concerned about the discrepancies that they believe an independent investigation is necessary.
Ridgeway said, however, "This is much ado about nothing. I think the contract is valid. If two parties act on a contract -- even though there may be an improper signature, but there was my signature as mayor -- and everybody acted on it, there's not a courtroom that wouldn't support that."
Councilman John Heffernan said he opposes Measure L, but believes the City Council has acted aboveboard.
"I don't think there was anything underhanded here. I just think it was sloppy."