Local elections and the unexpected departure of the popular city manager made for some testy times in Newport Beach in 2018.
Here are some of the city’s top stories of the year:
City Council election brings short-lived recount
Three of the four incumbents up for reelection held onto their seats in the November City Council election.
The hardest-fought contest was in District 3, where Marshall “Duffy” Duffield edged challenger Tim Stoaks by 36 votes out of nearly 37,000 cast. Incumbents Diane Dixon in District 1 and Kevin Muldoon in District 4 posted commanding victories, as did council newcomer Joy Brenner, who defeated incumbent Scott Peotter in District 6.
Stoaks’ supporters raised money to pay the Orange County registrar of voters office for a District 3 recount in December but terminated it in less than a week after the registrar rejected several ballot challenges.
Newport’s election season was fraught with divisions even before it officially started. In April, resident Martha Peyton filed complaints with the California Fair Political Practices Commission and in Orange County Superior Court alleging campaign finance violations by Duffield and Peotter related to Peotter’s successful defense against a 2017 recall attempt. Peyton dropped the lawsuit after a judge indicated support for the city — but not before a drama-within-the-drama in which Councilman Jeff Herdman shared lawsuit-related emails with the plaintiff’s lawyer, Phil Greer.
Herdman also used his city email account to encourage residents to vote some of his colleagues out of office over their perceived roles in the impending departure of then-City Manager Dave Kiff.
Residents also filed separate FPPC complaints against Duffield alleging business-driven conflicts of interest, one specifically tied to a partnership with Peotter (see more below) and another broader in scope.
Sidewalk vending allowed, with restrictions
A change in state law means Newport Beach had to lift its ban on roaming and stationary vendors of food and other goods.
But a provision allowing local control led the City Council in November to agree on a litany of restrictions keeping the sellers off beaches, boardwalks and piers and prescribed distances from schools, driveways, park equipment and more.
Many of the restrictions focus on preserving public and emergency access. Vendors also must follow licensing and permitting requirements.
Council members’ business partnership comes to light
Duffield hired Peotter to help him subdivide land that Duffield owns in San Bernardino County, triggering residents’ complaints of a conflict of interest.
Peotter, representing his architectural and planning consulting business, appeared before the city of Adelanto’s planning commission in September 2017 about dividing the property, which is home to Duffield’s Duffy Electric Boat Co. factory. Duffield, who wants to sell the property and move his manufacturing facility to Utah, later secured a medicinal marijuana distribution permit for the land to try to make it more attractive to potential buyers.
The Duffield-Peotter partnership was not widely confirmed until October 2018.
Duffield regularly recuses himself from City Council votes on Newport Harbor matters because of potential business conflicts related to Duffy Electric Boat Co., which has a harborfront office on West Coast Highway. Peotter did not recuse himself from those votes.
The FPPC rejected an ensuing conflict-of-interest claim, citing insufficient evidence.
Surgeon accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women
A Newport Beach orthopedic surgeon and his girlfriend were accused in September of picking up women at local restaurants and bars and then drugging and sexually assaulting them.
Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley face several counts of rape by drugs, kidnapping, oral copulation by anesthesia, assault with intent to commit sexual offenses and other crimes. Accusations against Robicheaux, accused of assaulting seven women, date to 2009.
The two have denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex.
On Nov. 1, one of the accusers asked a judge to find Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who the following week was elected district attorney, in contempt of court for releasing sealed court documents about the case to the media.
Bird scooters removed
Bird scooters lasted only three days in Newport Beach in late July before the city had the company remove them for operating without a permit.
The company, which offers a sharing service for dockless motorized scooters, dropped at least 50 of its two-wheeled vehicles on the Balboa Peninsula without notifying the city.
The City Council took a dim view of Bird and similar dockless scooters and electric bicycles but stopped short of a ban or new regulations, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach as cities that have been grappling with the issue longer, like Santa Monica, attempt solutions.
Lido Bridge jumping
Newport cracked down on the popular but risky and illegal summertime diversion of leaping into the harbor from the Lido Bridge after a jumper landed on a passing boat in July, damaging the vessel and injuring a passenger.
Dueling Measure T arguments
A coalition of former Newport Beach City Council members filed suit in July to try to force the city to use their argument against a ballot measure in place of one they contended wasn’t an opposing argument at all. But an Orange County judge ruled against the plaintiffs, saying that allowing the substitution in an information pamphlet would have restarted a statutory timeline that could have interfered with the November election.
Measure T asked voters to approve an amendment to Newport’s city charter to require 55% voter approval whenever the council wants to spend at least $50 million on capital projects using a financing method known as certificates of participation.
The proposition cruised to victory Nov. 6 with about 80% of the vote.
Lido House hotel opens
Newport got a much-desired upscale hotel near its tourism center.
Lido House opened in April on the Balboa Peninsula site of the former City Hall. The Cape Cod-style inn’s strong nautical theme includes a scale model of Wild Goose, the yacht of one-time Newport Beach resident John Wayne.
City manager departs
Popular City Manager Dave Kiff announced in March that he would step down months ahead of his previously planned departure, leading to accusations that some City Council members had secretly plotted to remove him.
A previous version of Kiff’s contract would end in April 2019. He instead left at the end of August.
Council members Duffield, Peotter, Muldoon and Will O’Neill repeatedly denied allegations that they plotted Kiff’s ouster. So did Kiff in a staff report issued in response to a resident’s complaint alleging open-meetings law violations. Another resident filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court seeking a special prosecutor to investigate similar allegations. The suit was dismissed.
After a largely closed-door recruitment process that triggered a rumor that Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson was a finalist, the City Council in August unanimously picked Irvine Assistant City Manager Grace Leung to fill Kiff’s position. Kiff went on to temporarily lead the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County, a public policy group.
Port plan is scuttled
The California Coastal Commission sunk Newport’s hopes of legally designating the largely recreational municipal harbor as a port, a strategy the city hoped would give it more control over infrastructure projects.
The Legislature would have been the body to designate Newport Harbor as a port, a status currently reserved for deepwater industrial ports like the Port of Long Beach. But the city abandoned its effort after the Coastal Commission voted in April to oppose legislation that would amend the California Coastal Act to establish Newport Beach as a port.
Recall petition probes
The Orange County district attorney’s office in January seized petitions from the county registrar of voters office over concerns about “potential irregularities” in the unsuccessful recall effort against Peotter.
Recall organizers said they believed an outside petition circulator may have forged signatures.
As of this month, prosecutors had not filed charges.
Not long after prosecutors took the petitions, a split City Council agreed to hold its own investigation into possible fraud. The city subpoenaed PCI Consultants Inc., the petition-circulating company contracted by the Committee to Recall Scott Peotter, but not members of the committee itself.
The city concluded that the firm did not violate local code but did suggest it didn’t file required anti-fraud affidavits with the state — a claim the business denied. The council then narrowly rejected creating a rule that would require paid petition circulators working for local initiatives to file the anti-fraud affidavits with the city.
A helicopter en route to Catalina Island crashed into a Newport Beach neighborhood within a minute after taking off from John Wayne Airport on Jan. 30, killing three people and injuring two.
The four-seat Robinson R44 clipped the roofs of two houses and hit the side of a home. The crash killed three people onboard and injured a fourth, plus one person on the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released a full report on the crash.
Newport Beach and the Federal Aviation Administration reached a settlement in January to move John Wayne Airport departures closer to Newport Bay.
Under the agreement, flight paths will stay between the existing noise monitors, and the FAA would design and study a curved departure procedure intended to allow planes to follow the bends of Upper Newport Bay and avoid as many residential areas as possible.
The city, along with Orange County, sued the FAA in 2016 after the agency changed its John Wayne departure paths as part of a broader regional plan intended to shore up inefficiencies, save fuel and reduce carbon emissions and flight delays. The departures at the heart of the suit had planes turning left — and closer to homes — just as they lifted off.
Newport man accused of murdering Blaze Bernstein
Newport Beach resident Samuel Woodward faces a charge of murder with a hate-crime allegation in the January slaying of former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein.
Prosecutors say Woodward, then 20, picked up Bernstein, 19, from his parents’ Lake Forest home late Jan. 2 and drove him to Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. Authorities allege Woodward stabbed Bernstein more than 20 times before burying him in a shallow grave at the park. Prosecutors believe Woodward killed Bernstein because Bernstein was gay.
Woodward, who has pleaded not guilty, remains in Orange County Jail with no bail. He is due back in court in January.