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Museum House debate veers from fair play

Last week I predicted the fight over the high-rise Museum House project — approved by the Newport City Council — would get ugly, and it has.

It's war, as the developer, Related California LLC, goes to battle against Line in the Sand (an offshoot of SPON, Still Protecting Our Newport) and a Santa Ana-based nonprofit group, Citizens against High Rise Urban Towers.

And anticipating $21.7 million in developer fees for schools and public safety, the Newport Beach Police and the Newport Beach Fire Fighters associations are also in the mix, supporting the project with a mailer and urging residents not to sign SPON referendum petitions.

Now, convincing the majority of council members and public safety unions to support this project is one thing, but convincing an entire city the project is a good idea is another, especially with the anti-high-density-development voter sentiment we've seen the past two election cycles.

So it's not surprising project supporters are aggressively fighting referendum efforts.

But the battle is getting a bit bizarre.

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On Dec. 2, two mystery men at Westcliff Plaza collected signatures supposedly for the referendum, but they didn't appear to be from either legitimate group, and didn't have the approximately 1,100 pages the council required be attached to the petitions.

One of the potentially bogus petitioners was questioned by Line in the Sand member Tim Stoaks, who is my neighbor and friend.

When the guy refused to provide any background info, Stoaks called the cops, who took the man's driver's license information and nothing more, according to Stoaks.

It was only when a Daily Pilot reporter showed up, that the bogus petitioner absconded.

These guys were back this week, only this time they were trying to convince people to rescind their signatures supporting the referendum.

At best these shenanigans are unscrupulous, and at worst, could they be a form of fraud?

I talked to police union President Vlad Anderson since his union is front and center in this controversy now.

He said he doesn't agree with "anything that breaks the rules or anyone compromising our credibility."

I wondered when the union got involved in supporting Museum House.

Anderson said discussions started with union consultant Peter Mitchell about three months ago.

I shared my concerns with NBPD Chief John Lewis.

Is there an investigation into all of this?

"We're seeking clarification here to see if any laws are in play," said Lewis.

He assured me the department takes all calls seriously and will continue to look into this.

On Dec. 3, Newport residents also found tags hanging on their doors paid for by OCMA Urban Housing LLC, an affiliate of Related Cos. of California, with a form to rescind petition signatures, and a website, savethemuseum.com.

When I visited the site Dec. 5 there was something labeled a "Rogues Gallery" picturing 10 Line in the Sand members, including Stoaks and longtime community activist Jean Watt.

The following day, "Rouges Gallery" was replaced with "Meet the Grinch's [sic] Trying to Steal Christmas."

This past week I also received a robo call, two more fliers and saw a TV ad, all in support of the project.

With his aggressive campaign in play I had a few questions for the land use consultant for the Museum House, Patrick Strader.

How much would the developer spend fighting referendum efforts, and what political consultants — if any — had been engaged?

Was his organization behind the bogus signature-gathering?

And how much had the developer and Strader donated to independent expenditures (IEs,) political action committees (PACs) and council candidates this election season in Newport?

Strader would only agree to an interview if I also touted the benefits of his project in this column.

When I explained the column dealt with the referendum fight, not the merits of the already-approved project, I never heard back.

Could this referendum battle get uglier?

You bet.

Worried about potential harassment against volunteers seeking petition signatures, Line in the Sand shared concerns with Newport City Manager Dave Kiff.

"Our intent is to protect the public forum so that signature-gatherers can work in all public spaces and private property, where they are exercising their first amendment rights without harassment," wrote Kiff

Kiff confirmed he's discussed the harassment concerns with the city attorney, staffers and police and welcomes calls to his office and the nonemergency number of the NBPD to report incidents.

Moving forward, referendum supporters should only sign petitions where the approximate 1,100 required city pages are present and go to the Line in the Sand site lineinthesandpac.com, for listings of legitimate signature-gathering locations.

Collecting signatures for a referendum shouldn't be this messy. The referendum process is being blatantly corrupted.

Will the council do anything about it?

Voters are watching.

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

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