The city of Newport Beach has stepped into the ongoing internal conflict at Newport Aquatic Center, asking the board of directors to respond to allegations of financial misconduct, harassment and retaliation.
Because the nonprofit rowing center’s facility sits on city- and county-owned land and operates under a long-term, no-cost lease, the city, as a landlord, has a vested interest in its operations.
“Although the city does not manage the programs offered by the NAC, ensuring limited public resources are being appropriately managed is a critical issue for the city,” City Attorney Aaron Harp wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to the NAC board of directors.
He gave the board until March 8 to answer to statements that the board is undersized, per its bylaws; to let the city know if it’s in compliance with a newly updated policy that guides decisions to lease public property to nonprofits at a discount; and respond to a lengthy list of accusations of financial, managerial and personal misconduct some members have leveled against the board, staff and the center’s longtime executive director, Billy Whitford.
It’s the latest point on a timeline of fraught relations between some users and leaders at the NAC, which has offered recreational and competitive rowing and paddling for boaters of all ages since 1987.
In 2017, two now-former members of the executive board sued three of their colleagues, plus Whitford, and other staff members in Orange County Superior Court in an attempt to place the organization into receivership after they said an investigation showed financial impropriety.
Harp’s letter follows several weeks of direct appeals at City Council meetings by NAC users critical of the remaining board members, reiterating allegations detailed in the lawsuit and a two-part series the Daily Pilot published in September.
David Dimitruk, the attorney representing Whitford and board members Bill Grant, Jon Van Cleave and Jim Netzer, said the board will refute every claim to the city.
“The allegations and accusations that have been made over a year and a half are false or distortions of pieces of information,” Dimitruk said. He said the board’s response will demonstrate that the NAC is on “solid ground.”
Whitford has also denied wrongdoing.
The complaints, which cover more than three pages of Harp’s six-page letter, broadly cover financial misconduct, including allegedly using NAC credit cards for personal purposes and directing funds raised for the junior rowing program to other programming; allowing for-profit businesses to operate out of the NAC base on the shores of Upper Newport Bay; and creating a hostile environment for employees and opposing members. This includes accusations of whistleblower retaliation by former Junior Rowing Director Pat Rolfes, who raised the possibility of fiscal mismanagement, and removing Bruce Ibbetson and Donna Warwick from the board after they sued their colleagues.
Warwick, Ibbetson and several parents of middle and high school students in the competitive junior rowing program assert that the case is about loose ethics to the point of corruption. The other side says it’s a power play to the point of a coup in an attempt to exalt junior rowing.
The city also seeks clarity on the size of the board, which dropped to four in September after the removal of Ibbetson and Warwick. Bylaws say the board should have at least eight members. Dimitriuk said two new members have recently been appointed.
The lawsuit is on hold as Dimitriuk appeals the Superior Court ruling denying his motion that the suit infringes on the defendants’ free speech rights.