Grand Jury criticizes county for keeping public in dark over land sales

The Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve located in Newport Beach.
(Courtesy of OC Parks)

Good morning and welcome to the TimesOC newsletter.

It’s Friday, June 17. I’m Ben Brazil, bringing you the latest roundup of Orange County news and events.

The county of Orange owns about 80,000 acres of public land. These beaches, parks, wildlife refuges and other recreational areas have a lot of value for Orange County residents.


But sometimes, pieces of this valuable land can be sold to private individuals without the public’s knowledge. That was the focus of a recent grand jury report that found the county isn’t sufficiently notifying residents about the potential sale of public lands. The investigative body also found that the county isn’t adequately notifying involved state agencies, like the California Coastal Commission, of potential land sales.

In its report, “County Land Transactions: Will the Public Notice?,” the grand jury said that it chose to review public land sales after receiving multiple complaints from residents about a failed deal in Newport Beach’s Back Bay. The sale sparked controversy last year because the county nearly sold a piece of land to a wealthy political donor for just $13,000. The deal also likely wouldn’t have even been considered if it weren’t for the advocacy of former county supervisor and current congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel.

The grand jury found that it was pretty clear the land is meant to stay public land. The parcel was given to the county decades ago by the Irvine Co. under the condition that it remain parkland, and the county eventually adopted a resolution that declared the land where the parcel sits, known as Newport Beach’s Back Bay Reserve, as public land. The California State Land Commission also recognized the area as public trust land. The county resolution noted that the commission leased the property to the state’s Department of Fish and Game for open space.

“With the support of the then-District 2 Supervisor, steps were taken to sell the land with no restrictions despite the predated covenants and restrictions and without regard to the Board of Supervisors and the California State Land Commission’s resolutions that the land shall be held in trust under the stewardship of the State’s Department of Fish and Game,” the grand jury said.

The grand jury also noted that the deal would have likely gone through if it weren’t for Supervisor Katrina Foley taking Steel’s seat. Instead of supporting the controversial deal, Foley tabled the item, which was eventually killed when a petition was signed by about 1,300 residents.

The grand jury also criticized the county’s method for notifying residents of the potential deal. The county is required to publish a notice of a sale of public land in a newspaper. However in this instance, the county chose to print a notice in the OC Reporter. The grand jury found this to be inadequate, and contended that the notice should have been posted in the Orange County Register or Daily Pilot.

“Although the OC Reporter prints some articles of general interest, this publication exists primarily to provide a vehicle for legal notices,” the grand jury said. “It is not within the spirit of the law to claim that this is the newspaper with the greatest circulation in order to provide notice to local citizens ... In addition, the legal notices published do not provide average interested citizens true notice of what is being sold as the notices are purely legal in nature and the properties are often described by plot number and other technical identifiers.”

The owner still has a fence installed around the parcel of land even though the sale isn’t moving forward. The grand jury requested that the county order the removal of it because it’s allowing the homeowner to “inappropriately privatize this parcel at no cost to the homeowner.”

Local attorney Michael Avenatti pleaded guilty this week to defrauding clients of millions.
Local attorney Michael Avenatti pleaded guilty this week to defrauding clients of millions.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)


— Anaheim officials reversed a sale of Angel Stadium after a corruption scandal was uncovered. Now, state Sen. Tom Umberg is hoping to strengthen the Surplus Land Act to prevent corrupt land deals in the future. My colleague Gabriel San Román wrote that a proposed bill from Umberg would empower the California Department of Housing and Community Development to block such deals from happening rather than just issuing fines. “When the Surplus Lands Act was passed, it was because the state recognized the need for more affordable housing,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, who was consulted on the bill. “It’s clear that legislation is needed so that we aren’t seeing more local governments benefiting from violating the law.”

— Costa Mesa officials approved the first retail dispensaries in the city this week. The city has allowed cannabis delivery services, but this signals the first time that actual storefront businesses will be allowed to set up shop. Officials now need to review more than 50 retail applications. Reporter Sara Cardine has the story.

— Since the Orange County Power Authority was formed less than two years ago, the county’s first community choice energy program has faced scrutiny for transparency issues and poor leadership. This week, Irvine officials chose to move forward with an audit of the financial records of the authority. Huntington Beach officials voted to support the audit and approved a vote of no confidence of the agency’s leader, who has been criticized for having little experience in the energy sector.

— Newport Beach attorney Michael Avenatti pleaded guilty this week to defrauding clients for about $10 million as his firm was struggling financially. Avenatti was already convicted in New York for stealing money from adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Avenatti is facing possibly dozens of years in prison. The attorney quickly rose to fame a few years ago when he represented Daniels against former President Donald Trump over an alleged sexual encounter.

— A Huntington Beach man was found dead in Death Valley National Park. Authorities believe he started walking after running out of gas before his death. The temperatures at the time were around 120 degrees, wrote my colleague Matt Szabo. According to the police, he had left a note in his car that read “out of gas.”

— Costa Mesa police are looking for a driver whose vehicle allegedly hit and killed a 64-year-old woman. Police are seeking the public’s help in finding the suspect.

Georgia's owner Nika Shoemaker-Machado stands in her Georgia's Restaurant in the Anaheim Packing House.
(Don Leach / TimesOC)


— As restaurants have struggled due to the pandemic economy, the California Restaurant Foundation awarded grants to 162 local restaurants. My colleague Sarah Mosqueda wrote about the various restaurants that received the grant, including Georgia’s Restaurant, which serves soul food in the Anaheim Packing House. Nika Shoemaker-Machado, who owns the restaurant with her husband, said grants have helped the business get through some tough times in the last two years.

— High school seniors around Orange County are graduating and getting ready for the next chapters of their lives. About 300 Ocean View High students took part in an on-campus ceremony on the school’s football field. Each student was able to walk through the Seahawk balloon tunnel as part of the festivities. Huntington Beach High celebrated its 116th senior class, a highlight of which was a spirited student-led rendition of the “I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts. UC Irvine ended its school year in style with a huge commencement ceremony in Angel Stadium. “This amazing graduating class will forever be remembered as one of the most resilient and responsive and determined classes that we have ever had the privilege of knowing,” said Chancellor Howard Gillman. “Graduates, just consider your journey. All of those years of dreaming, aspiring, planning. So many long days and late nights.”

— The winner of the Miss Huntington Beach pageant was honored with her own spot in a rose garden. Gisell Gochman selected a rose bush in the city’s Civic Center garden after giving an impassioned speech. “I’ve loved growing up in this city so much,” Gochman said. “It’s just an amazing community. The Sweet Spirit rose, to me, represents beauty and grace and elegance — all qualities that I hope to possess as Miss Huntington Beach and in the future.”

Estancia's pitcher Trevor Scott during a CIF State final in Costa Mesa.
(James Carbone)


— An Estancia High graduate will get the honor of throwing the first pitch before an Angel game on June 27. The Angels asked Trevor Scott to throw the pitch after he led his team this season to win a CIF Southern Section Division 6 title and the CIF Southern California Regional Division V crown.

— The Angels are continuing to disappoint this season. In a matchup against the Dodgers this week the team almost didn’t score a single run until superstar Shohei Ohtani cracked a big hit and then earned a run off of a teammate’s base hit in the last inning of the game. “This game’s hard,” manager Phil Nevin said. “I’ll never forget how hard it was to play, I promise you that. … I wouldn’t consider this getting blown out at all. It just doesn’t look good because you don’t get a hit until the ninth.”

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