Airport Foes Sue Newport Beach, Group

From Times Staff

Foes of converting the closed El Toro Marine base to a commercial airport sued Newport Beach and the Airport Working Group on Friday, alleging that the city illegally allocated about $3.7 million in public funds to help defeat an anti-airport ballot measure.

The El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of south Orange County cities, argued in Orange County Superior Court that the money is being used improperly for a "massive political campaign" against the Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve Initiative.

If passed, the measure would amend the county's general plan by changing El Toro's use from an airport to a major park. Supporters of the initiative are gathering signatures to place it on the ballot.

In May, the Newport Beach City Council, which favors a new airport, granted the Airport Working Group $3.67 million, to be used for public education and information related to the El Toro issue. The pro-airport citizens group, based in Newport Beach, has received about $2.1 million so far.

The lawsuit seeks to recover any spent funds and stop the city from spending any more public funds on what the airport foes say is a political campaign to promote the airport. State law forbids public entities from directly or indirectly spending taxpayer dollars to influence an initiative.

Paul D. Eckles, executive director of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, said of the City Council, "Everything they have produced so far, and everything they have expressed, has been completely one-sided."

Newport Beach City Atty. Robert Burnham said the money is not being used for political purposes and that attorneys screen the funds to make sure the spending is legal.

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