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Political Landscape: Newport-tinged bill on referendum petitions becomes law

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Newport Beach Assistant City Clerk Jennifer Nelson, left, and Administrative Assistant Jennifer Mulvey count petition signatures submitted in 2016 by Line in the Sand, a local activist group that challenged the since-scrapped Museum House condominium tower.
(File Photo)

Municipal referendum supporters in California are no longer required to attach the full ordinances they’re seeking to challenge to their petitions following passage of a new law that had its genesis in Newport Beach.

Senate Bill 359, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Tuesday, gives referendum proponents the option to instead write and attach city-approved summaries to their petitions.

Previously, city councils could require inclusion of complete ordinance text plus attachments such as maps and other dense legal documents that could make petitions thousands of pages long — something that happened when activists fought the proposed Museum House condominium tower in Newport in late 2016. Despite that, opponents still gathered enough signatures to put the matter to a public vote, but the Newport Beach City Council decided to instead rescind its approval of the project in February 2017.

Local activist Susan Skinner was a key organizer in the Museum House effort and this new law. She said she first took her concerns about the petition length to the Orange County grand jury and the district attorney’s office, but both said the Newport council hadn’t broken any laws. So, she set out to change the law by approaching one of Newport’s state representatives, Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa).

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“He was aware of it and he was perfectly ready to sit down and do something about it,” Skinner said Thursday.

The law doesn’t prohibit councils from asking that petition writers append full ordinances, but allows each section of the petition to contain an impartial summary of the referendum issue. The summary, up to 5,000 words, would be drafted by the proponents of the referendum, filed with the local elections official and approved by the city attorney.

Skinner lobbied in Sacramento for the bill — taking a copy of the Museum House petition to committees and the office of another local representative, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), as a visual aid. Skinner said she often takes her petition, which weighs about 10 pounds, on the road.

“There will never be another 10-pound Museum House petition,” she said.

The bill passed both chambers of the state Legislature with no opposing votes.

Poseidon town hall scheduled in H.B.

Orange County Coastkeeper will host a town hall meeting Tuesday in Huntington Beach to prepare for an upcoming Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board workshop on the proposed Poseidon desalination plant.

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Damon Nagami, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, will be the keynote speaker. Coastkeeper opposes Poseidon Water’s proposal to build a desalination plant in Huntington — claiming it is unnecessary, would cause pollution, and negatively affect local residents, the environment and marine life.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board will hear public comment on the proposed plant at its Dec. 6 meeting, ahead of an expected hearing in early 2020.

Tuesday’s town hall starts at 7 p.m. at Eader Elementary School, 9291 Banning Ave.

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