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Complaint alleges conflict of interest in Newport councilman's vote on harbor jetpack ban

A Newport Beach community activist said Thursday that he filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission against Councilman Brad Avery, alleging that Avery's vote this week on banning water jetpack operations in Newport Harbor was a conflict of interest.

The City Council voted 5-1 on Tuesday to bar businesses from operating jetpacks in the harbor. Jetpack America, which had been Newport's lone operator of the water-propelled devices, closed up shop at the harbor in November, saying the city placed overly restrictive conditions on its permit.

Mayor Kevin Muldoon dissented in Tuesday's vote, and Mayor Pro Tem Marshall "Duffy" Duffield recused himself because his business, Duffy Electric Boat Co., is at the harbor.

Mike Glenn, a Balboa Island resident who ran unsuccessfully for City Council last year, said Avery also should have recused himself because he's director of marine programs at Orange Coast College, whose School of Sailing and Seamanship at Newport Harbor provides boat rentals and sailing and other recreational marine classes.

Glenn said his FPPC complaint alleges that Avery's vote was improper because any jetpack operations share limited harbor space with boats that the councilman receives income to promote and operate.

"I believe the case is clear that he runs a recreational watercraft business which directly shares and competes for space from another type of recreational watercraft which he has sought to use his power to ban from the harbor," Glenn said in an interview.

Glenn said he filed his complaint through the state agency's online system Thursday afternoon. FPPC officials said they could not immediately confirm whether the agency had received it.

In an exchange of emails between Glenn and Avery on Thursday morning, Glenn asked the councilman to request another vote and recuse himself. Avery responded that "as a public employee whose compensation remains fixed regardless of business or civic outcomes, I do not think I have a conflict."

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Avery said the council's decision to ban jetpacks in the harbor has no effect on the operations of the college's sailing school.

Avery previously studied the jetpack operations, including residents' concerns about safety and noise, while he was on the city's Harbor Commission. The commission ultimately recommended a ban on the activity in 2015. However, the City Council at the time opted to allow one jetpack business to operate, with location restrictions.

"As a harbor commissioner, I was a proponent of all boats doing what they want to do in the harbor as long as they were following the rules. But I've never felt a jetpack was a compatible use in the harbor," Avery said.

City Attorney Aaron Harp called the complaint "totally without merit," saying he doesn't see a conflict that would prohibit Avery from voting on the issue.

Duffield also was permitted to vote but recused himself out of an abundance of caution, Harp said.

Under the state Political Reform Act, a public official may not make or influence a governmental decision when the official knows or has reason to know that he or she has a disqualifying financial interest.

"A public official has a disqualifying financial interest if the decision will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect, distinguishable from the effect on the public generally, directly on the official or his or her immediate family," according to the act.

Violations of the law can result in a fine of up to $5,000, according to the FPPC.

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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