Museum House opponents deliver signatures early

Line in the Sand founder Jean Watt celebrated her 90th birthday last week, and by all accounts there's no slowing down this powerhouse community advocate.

Leading the referendum signature battle against the proposed Museum House development, Watt and her group collected an estimated 13,837 signatures, and on Wednesday delivered about 360 referendum petition packets to the Newport Beach city clerk's office. The petitions each weighed about 10 pounds, measured 11 inches by 17 inches and were about 2 1/2 inches thick. It amounted to nearly two tons of paper, most of which were inside the 65 boxes delivered to the clerk's team.

They'll need 5,800 verifiable signatures to bring the Museum House project to a vote of the people.

The group did this all in just two weeks, delivering ahead of the Dec. 29 deadline, and in the face of unprecedented criticism by the opposition, including an email blast this week from Councilman Scott Peotter.

Line in the Sand is an offshoot of SPON, or Still Protecting Our Newport. In Peotter's email he calls them "Still Pouting and Whining in Newport-SPAWN" and depicts the movie poster from 1983 film "The Deadly Spawn," with monster tentacles and fangs coming to Earth "to eat human flesh."

He attempts to expel what he calls lies about the Museum House project.

I have no problem with a councilman disagreeing with constituents, but mocking them in this manner is shameful, disrespectful and unbecoming of the office.

During this petition war, Line in the Sand has spoken to thousands of residents.

Member Karen Tringali said her sense was that many who considered Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) a separate issue, were resentful of how these two issues — development and a new location — were combined. They felt the City Council wasn't listening to the community.

Tringali says her group doesn't have an opinion on OCMA, but rather on what to do with the property.

"This is a land-use issue for us," she said, and a case of representative government not listening to residents, "which is why we have to go for a referendum of change."

But is OCMA really a separate issue here?

They're the ones who want to sell their property to the high-rise developer Related California LLC, so they can move from Fashion Island to the Segerstrom Center.

I called Todd D. Smith, OCMA director and CEO. Early in this fight, Smith sent an email to supporters announcing the council decision to approve the project, warning, "A group of residents has decided to repeal the council's approval by circulating a petition to 'referend' the Museum House."

"We cannot let this effort succeed," Smith wrote, urging supporters not to sign petitions and asked they text or email and "let us know the time and the location where the petitioners were."

I asked Smith why he wanted this information.

Smith said he wanted to alert his partner, Related, so they could mobilize their forces, as the opposition was doing, and pass out their own information.

That's when I asked about the aggressive young men who were harassing petitioners and signers outside of stores, and if he thought that was an OK strategy.

Smith said there were also "documented cases opponents have given out false information, and we have our people telling us they have been harassed by paid petitioners as well."

In my book saying "they did it too" isn't cool. You can't light a match and then blame someone else for the fire.

I've heard stories of petitioners and signers being harassed, countering by getting in the faces of those who aggressively approached them.

But petitioners working for the project set this tone initially, so Related and OCMA shouldn't be surprised that their operatives have experienced blowback.

Smith wanted to expel some rumors about OCMA.

He said the museum wasn't in financial distress, as some have insinuated, and that wasn't the motivation to seek out Related to buy its property.

"We are a solvent nonprofit and look to the Segerstrom Center to build on that."

And, he said, there's a "logical audience for us there," as OCMA is the visual arts component the center is missing.

Smith points to "cross opportunities" at the Segerstrom Center, where the museum would have higher visibility, as there is a lack of pedestrian traffic at their current location, making it difficult to grow.

"We've been a good neighbor in Newport for 55 years" he said.

I am sure neighborly isn't the word some would use to describe them now, especially after this highly negative campaign to stop the referendum effort.

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

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