2 Newport council members want audit of Civic Center project

(KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot)

Two Newport Beach City Council members are calling for an audit of the city’s hotly debated Civic Center project.

The request from Mayor Pro Tem Diane Dixon and Councilman Kevin Muldoon comes on the heels of a city inquiry into whether Assistant City Manager Steve Badum failed to report gifts and meals from companies doing business with the city.

A memo from City Manager Aaron Harp and the City Council identified C.W. Driver, a Pasadena-based company that acted as construction manager for the $142.5 million Civic Center project, as one of the businesses that may have provided gifts to Badum.

The city sent a complaint about the matter to the Orange County district attorney’s office for review. The office has not filed charges against Badum.

Members of city staff and the council declined to comment on the inquiry or its relationship to the proposed audit.

“We are not looking for someone to blame,” Dixon said of the audit. “I personally don’t believe anything criminal or corrupt was going on, but I do believe there are lessons to be learned about how to better manage major public works projects in this city.”

When the Civic Center opened in May 2013, some residents saw it as a symbol of irresponsible spending by a city government that was out of touch with the needs of the community.

Dixon, Muldoon and Councilmen Scott Peotter and Marshall “Duffy” Duffield were elected to the council in November after running as a slate known as “Team Newport.” They were among the project’s harshest critics leading up to the election.

The audit idea was floated months before the Badum inquiry. When the new council members took their seats in January, city staff presented a cost analysis of the Civic Center project, explaining why some aspects cost more than others. While the rest of the council appeared to be satisfied by the presentation, Dixon expressed a desire for an outside company to look at the city’s process for construction projects.

And she and Muldoon said they have been approached by many residents who continue to question the Civic Center’s price tag.

Dixon said she is not concerned about the city’s current construction endeavors, including the $38.3 million Marina Park project that is scheduled to be completed by January on the Balboa Peninsula. But she said she hopes an audit would help the city improve its processes for future large-scale projects.

“We need to be able to go before the citizens and say, ‘Here’s what happened — the good, the bad and the ugly — and here’s what we’re going to do going forward,’” Dixon said. “Only then will we begin to restore the people’s trust in their city government.”

Muldoon said that if the council approves an audit, the city likely would contract with an agency to conduct it. A cost estimate for an external audit was not available, but Mayor Ed Selich said it would likely be “very expensive.”

“I don’t quite understand the reason for it,” Selich said. “My initial thought on it is that it will be … a waste of city money, unless there’s some specific reason why we should do it.”

Selich said he has not been approached by residents demanding an audit.

Muldoon said the audit’s benefit to the city would outweigh its potential cost in the long run.

“I think in the end the benefit in cost reduction on future projects is going to justify any expense,” he said.

Dixon and Muldoon plan to present the idea to the rest of the council at its next meeting May 12.