Critics challenged proposed Newport Beach city charter amendments at a community forum this week, drawing a rebuke from city officials.
The Wednesday debate, hosted by Speak Up Newport, highlighted some of the most contentious proposals for the city constitution.
Voters in November will be asked to vote on 38 changes — from conflict-of-interest to City Council compensation rules — all in one yes or no vote on Measure EE.
Supporters say it would make mostly clerical changes and codify practices already in place, while opponents say it would weaken public protections and the amendments shouldn't all be rolled together.
"If you're against one of them, you need to vote against it," said panelist Ron Hendrickson.
Councilman Keith Curry argued that the charter changes are mostly innocuous, and that a citizens group hashed out the issues before they were vetted by the council.
Conflict of interest
Curry defended some conflict-of-interest revisions, which would extend restrictions to committee members, but could allow other officials to have a financial stake in city contracts.
The charter today says that council members and department heads cannot have a financial interest in any city contract, sale or transaction.
If approved, the change would allow officials to have a financial stake in such city agreements, so long as they aren't the ones making the contract or influencing the decision.
"The changes to the conflict of interest provisions protect the council, not the public," the opponents write in their ballot argument.
State laws, Curry said, provide sufficient protections. Today's charter restriction could have unintended consequences, he argued. For instance, it could prevent someone who works at the Balboa Bay Club, Curry said, from running for council because the city leases land to the club.
"Do we really want to be the kind of city where if you have a business on the harbor, you can't run for the City Council?" he asked.
Opponents have hounded Curry for adding a ban against red-light cameras into the measure after the Citizens Charter Update Committee approved a list of changes and recommended the council adopt them.
"They become revenue raisers for local governments," Curry said of the cameras.
He also added a charter amendment in 2010 that he said closes a Proposition 13 loophole. But council critic Jim Mosher calls both of Curry's proposals "red herrings" that were added just to sway votes in favor of the larger package of measures.
"Don't allow our charter to be a catch-all for politicians to sway votes," Hendrickson added.
But Curry stood by his additions, pointing to a Huntington Beach tax dispute that he says could have happened in Newport without the 2010 charter change.
City Council compensation
One hot-button issue leading up to Wednesday's debate was the proposed changes to council members' compensation. The current charter says that council members can only get a stipend as reimbursement for expenses, and the change would classify it as "compensation."
"My guess is [past councils] were trying to characterize them in a way that was exempt from income taxes," Curry said.
While the actual amount paid to the council members would not differ with the amendments, critics have said the new provision goes against the spirit of the charter.
Also, they say that the new charter section would not refer to additional health and retirement benefits that council members already receive. Council members take home about $15,000 per year in their stipend, with the mayor getting about $21,000. Opponents point out that council members also receive the equivalent of about $19,000 annually in health and retirement benefits.
"If you read this [charter] item, you cannot find the total salary," Hendrickson said.
Curry said the health benefits have been a long-established practice and are allowed by other city laws.
Measure EE would also change the charter to prohibit people from filing class-action claims against the city. City leaders say this is necessary because of a 2011 Los Angeles lawsuit, where a resident sued the city for unjustly collecting telephone users' tax.
Newport's attorney said it needs protection against suits seeking the refund of taxes and/or fees. The charter change would extend the ban to all class actions.
"They waste city resources and are simply not needed," Paul Watkins, chairman of the Citizens Charter Update Committee, said about class actions.
Mosher disagreed, calling class actions "perfectly valid citizens' tools to spur government action."