State legislators may soon be asked to referee the ongoing scuffle between the city of Newport Beach and residential dock owners.
Opponents of the dock fee increases are calling for a review of the way the city spends revenues generated in its management of public tidelands. They want a review by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which investigates policy, finances and other matters and then passes recommendations on to the Legislature.
Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa), who found himself on the receiving end of both that request and a response from the city roundly dismissing the claims made by opponents, said Wednesday that his staff will analyze whether to take the issue to the committee in coming days.
"I think it's fair to say we want to thoroughly review it," he said. "We're giving it the due diligence it deserves."
A representative for state Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), whom the association has also contacted for legislative support, said Thursday that Walters' staff will also look into the issue before deciding whether it warrants review by the committee.
Everett Rice, her spokesman, said that while a Walters staff member did speak against the fee increase at a City Council hearing, the senator's main concern was that the fee be properly implemented.
The Newport Beach Dock Owners Assn. late last month sent a "Tidelands Fund White Paper," claiming that the city has been misusing revenue generated in the city's management of state-owned tidelands to Mansoor and Walters, "for possible review by the joint legislative audit committee."
The group has said for months that it's seeking such an audit.
"We believe [city officials] regularly violate the terms and conditions of the Tidelands Grant," the report says. "The tidelands trust is not a piggybank for the city to use when the public and state officials are not watching."
But last week, Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry sent Mansoor a rebuttal to the report and issued a claim-by-claim refutation.
Curry said in an interview that the association's report was "outrageous" and largely false.
"The continued charges by Bob McCaffrey become more and more outrageous and untruthful every time they send a new press release," Curry said, referring to the Stop the Dock Tax group leader.
McCaffrey said the city has been disagreeing with his group, regardless of what its members says.
"When we say white, they're going to say black," he said.
In the letter to Mansoor, Curry wrote that city officials have been "good stewards of the tidelands money" and spend it according to the 1978 Beacon Bay Bill, which granted Newport Beach authority over the public tidelands.
The State Lands Commission, which has ultimate authority over whether the city is properly managing the public waters, last month opted to put off a vote that would have allowed Newport to create a separate fund for dock fee increases to be spent only on harbor infrastructure improvements.
That decision came after Mansoor and Walters jointly requested that the commission wait for more information before voting in favor of the separate fund.
Mansoor said that action wasn't meant to be read as taking sides.
"My only concern is being responsive to the community," he said. "The delay caused no harm and simply gave us a chance to review all the information that's been presented to us, and I think that's fair."
In his letter to Mansoor, dated May 1, Curry wrote that a California State Auditor's report that the commission had been "undervaluing" many state lands spurred Newport to increase harbor use fees to "fair market values."
"If indeed the State Lands Commission or the Joint committee is solicited to review our expenditures, it may very well be that they (or the California State Auditor) may also weigh in on what should be fair-market value for tidelands administered by the city of Newport Beach," Curry warned in the letter. "There is a possibility that our past charges have been too low and a review at the state level may trigger an increase in rental rates."
A comparison by the city between average Newport Harbor rents under the fully phased-in rates, which would change fees for residents with docks over public tidelands from a flat $100 annually to 52.5 cents per square foot per year, shows that Newport's rates are significantly lower than other state trust properties.
While Newport's average dock rent will be $740 per year, the document says, State Lands Commission-managed properties in Huntington Harbour average $1,732 per year and $1,675 for state-managed Lake Tahoe properties.
The skirmish over the tidelands fund is one front in the battle between residential dock owners and the city — a tiff that flared up this weekend as planes flew messages of protest over the grand opening of Newport's civic center.
"Stop the Dock Tax," said one.
"Taj Mahal — $140 million taxpayer rip-off," read the other.
McCaffrey said Thursday that flying the banners cost about $1,000, paid for with donations to the association.
"I think we got our point across," he said. "You ought to have a little fun in every campaign, in my opinion."
McCaffrey said, all in all, "we're just taking a real careful look" at the city's management of the tidelands.
"I think that basically the city is taking the position that they need more money," he said. "We're saying, now wait a minute. We want complete transparency." He wouldn't speculate about what his group might do if a state audit, as Curry suggested, found that the city was still not charging market value.
Next week, a lawsuit filed by McCaffrey and the dock owners alleging that the city violated transparency laws in its process to enact the rent increases could be resolved, city attorneys have said.
A judge is expected to make a decision May 16 on a document the city filed in response to the lawsuit, essentially alleging that even if events transpired according to the lawsuit's allegations, the city still didn't break the law.