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Fiscal reform advocates take aim at Newport Beach's concrete bunnies

It's open season on Newport Beach's concrete bunnies

Near a busy corner in Newport Beach, at the edge of Civic Center Park, 14 concrete rabbits sit on their haunches in a tight circle, staring at each other through painted pastel eyes.

The child-size creatures — known by some in this picturesque beach city as "bunnyhenge" — were added as a playful touch to the massive Civic Center complex, which rises like a white ship from the hillside below, its undulating roof mimicking the waves on the distant horizon.

Not everyone finds the long ears and puffy tails endearing.

In a town of great wealth, some residents have long taken pride in its spartan government buildings. Residents might own extravagant yachts on the harbor or live in pricey homes on the beach, but the City Hall of decades past was a simple, low-slung building that looked for all the world like a grade school. Not far away, the firehouse on Balboa Island was so snug that drivers had to jockey back and forth to get firetrucks into the building.

That image of frugality eroded rapidly, though, when the city's workforce outgrew its digs and moved across town two years ago, infuriating residents who felt the City Council had spun out of control by leaving its modest home near the harbor for an ostentatious complex on the cusp of Newport Center.

But it was the collection of bunny rabbits that became political prey.

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Across the street from the Civic Center Park, political campaign consultant David Ellis took note of the bunnies' arrival during his workouts at the Newport Beach Athletic Club.

The custom-manufactured rabbits remained wrapped in packing material for months, puzzling members of the gym. Then, one day, the chalky white figures were revealed, providing immediate fodder for a political campaign to come.

"Finally, somebody unwrapped them, and we said, 'What in the world?'" Ellis recalled.

The city had intended the assembly to be a play element for kids, but residents wondered if they might actually be some form of public art. They also wondered how much the things had cost — $221,000, they learned, for the set of 14 along with two 8-foot-tall specimens planted elsewhere at the Civic Center.

There were so many questions that the city finally dedicated a Web page to the "rabbit story."

Unlike a playground, the whimsical animals fit the aim of designers at Berkeley-based PWP Landscape Architecture to provide intrigue and discovery in the public space. They had considered quails, lizards and sea turtles — as well as live willow sculptures — but the native desert cottontail, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, seemed like the right fit.

For some, the determination proved correct: children clambered on them; people posed with them for photos.

"The bunnies, to me, they're lighthearted and fun, which is what Newport Beach used to be before it became so absorbed in this kind of controversy," said resident Dean Laws, 69.

Photos posted online depict the rabbits wearing heart necklaces for Valentine's Day, green hats for St. Patrick's Day and red scarves for the winter holidays, much like the seasonal attire of the decades-old dolphin-shaped topiaries along nearby East Coast Highway.

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When he was mayor, Rush Hill took every opportunity to highlight residents' quality of life. He pushed for a new golf course and waived fees for home improvement.

After all, Newport Beach was a city where potholes are quickly filled, the senior center offers a shuttle service and a 10.5-acre public park is being built by the bay — complete with boat slips.

This year, a slate of four fiscally conservative candidates billed as "Team Newport" and guided by Ellis targeted what they saw as an era of municipal self-indulgence. They swept the November elections, ousting Hill and claiming three open seats on the seven-member council. The victory was built partially on the strength of mailers, such as the one that had an image of a milk-white bunny peering over the new City Hall as $100 bills rain from the sky.

The new majority tapped into pools of disenchanted residents: those angered by the ban on wood-burning beach-side fire rings, the increased tariff for residential docks and the revelation that the cost of their new Civic Center could top out at $140 million.

The rabbits were "just icing on the cake," said Bob McCaffrey, chairman of a political action committee called Residents for Reform, which endorsed the candidates.

"You've heard the expression that we need to think outside the box?" one candidate, Scott Peotter said in a campaign video. "Well, some people take it a little bit further, and they say we need to blow up the boxes. Well, in this case, we need to blow up the bunnies!"

With those words, the video shows a bunny's head exploding into flames.

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It's anyone's guess whether the bunnies will survive.

Councilman Keith Curry, who was named mayor at the first meeting in the new chambers, defended the Civic Center and its environs with a reference to the now-forgotten criticism of the Eiffel Tower when it was built.

"The fact is, nearly all structures that we think of today as iconic had, at the time, their critics and those who were short-sighted," he said.

The newly seated reform council members hope to waste little time in trimming the sails. They want the fire rings returned, the dock fees revisited and the City Hall building expenses audited. Peotter wants to go a step further and evict the bunny rabbits, symbols to him of government gone wrong.

Peotter said he's researching options for a new home for the bunnies — maybe a local hospital would take them or even a museum in Pasadena that claims to have the world's largest bunny collection.

"If not, it will just be an ongoing joke," he said. "It will be the joke that never dies."

It is also a joke that is lost on some.

Resident Pat Watson, 74, passes by the rabbits each day while running errands and is not quite certain what the fuss is all about.

"It's just beyond ridiculous," she said. "Like we have no problems."

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

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