Museum House battle is getting ugly

With signs saying, "Don't sign the petition possible identity theft," posted by supporters of the proposed Museum House — hired workers allegedly intimidating petitioners and signers who want to put the development on the ballot — it's madness in Newport these days.

And even with the recent Irvine Co. lawsuit aimed at regulating some of these practices at its shopping centers, and folks calling the cops, the craziness continues.

I continue to hear from readers witnessing legitimate petitioners from Line in the Sand — and those wanting to sign petitions — being intimidated by aggressive young men​ at different locations.

At the Newport council meeting Tuesday night, one resident even described being confronted by seven or eight "thuggish, quasi-gang member-looking men" who punched him, blocked his car, ripped his shirt and ​cut his ear after he intervened when seeing them harass "two senior citizen ladies" sitting at a referendum petition table at the Eastbluff shopping center.

The man making the claim — a Museum House supporter — told the Daily Pilot after the meeting that he said some things to the council that he shouldn't have, and that he didn't want to further discuss the incident or press charges. Newport police told the Pilot that officers responded to a 911 call and spoke with some participants, though all declined to press charges.

And when one resident wrote to the council before the meeting complaining about tactics being used in this fight, then-Mayor Diane Dixon wrote back, saying of the project developer, "I have been assured that Related is not behind these unsavory tactics."

At the council meeting, Dixon called for a stop ​to these tactics by all parties. She also claimed there were three factions in the referendum fight, including a "mystery third party" and wasn't clear on where they stood.

 

Last week I wrote it was war, as the developer, Related California LLC, battles opposition to its project by Line in the Sand (the political arm of Still Protecting Our Newport, or SPON) and Santa Ana-based nonprofit group Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers.

Who's behind Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers is unknown, but they're obviously against the project, as their ads indicate.

The land-use consultant for Museum House, Patrick Strader, complained on my Facebook page that the Towers group is using "dark money," meaning there are independent expenditures, or IEs, funding opposition of his project.

Strader also complains that I've lost my objectivity in writing about this battle. As an opinion columnist, not a news reporter, my opinion is that the tactics being used to stop the petition drive are shameful.

Whatever merits this project did offer are overshadowed by the unsavory lengths supporters are willing to go. I also question a council comfortable enough to get in bed with anyone backing this project.

I'm not alone here.

"I have never seen such dishonest and flagrant tactics used to suppress voter participation in the referendum process as those employed by the political consultants of the Museum House project," outgoing Councilman Keith Curry, who first voted for the project and then withheld his support, told me Wednesday.

Coming off a brutal council election, and now this even uglier referendum battle, my sense is voters are growing weary of the negativity.

It didn't have to play out this way.

The fact that outgoing Councilman Ed Selich initiated that the petition be over 1,000 pages to include EIR documents should have been enough of a roadblock to appease the developer.

Each petition weighs approximately 10 pounds, making it difficult for some of the older Line in the Sand folks to handle them, as member Nancy Skinner pointed out at the council meeting.

Explaining the undue burden placed on her group, Skinner called out Selich for smiling during her comments about it at the meeting.

Considering the average petition printing of this nature normally would cost approximately $3,000, I'm told printing costs for these petitions are now upward of $40,000, another obstacle in referendum efforts.

Facing these challenges, it's no wonder Line in the Sand hired help to get the petition signatures, something the opposition has complained about.

So it's OK to hire people to thwart the process but not to pay people to sit at tables and help gather signatures?

This fight is nowhere near over.

If enough signatures are gathered to put the project to a vote, each side still has to convince the majority of the 53,131 registered Newport voters in order to prevail.

Fasten your seat belts, folks. If you thought the signature battle was a nasty ride, wait till you see what unfolds before a potential Election Day.

The worst is yet to come.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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