Officials challenge Pilot column

The Newport Beach City Council will have a chance to vote publicly at its regular meeting Tuesday on whether to sue the Orange County Transportation Authority, after some dispute over whether or not it has already done so.

The confusion centers in part on a public statement issued Tuesday by City Attorney Aaron Harp seeking to clarify the accuracy of a Daily Pilot opinion column, which stated that the council voted to sue OCTA. A few days prior to that, Harp had sent an email to a community activist stating there was a 6-1 vote to sue.

The "vote" was reported by Daily Pilot columnist Jack Wu, based on that email.

Councilwoman Leslie Daigle objected to Wu's column, saying that the decision was made by consensus, not a formal vote. Harp issued a statement in support of that.

Daigle wrote a letter to the editor saying that a vote is "a formal expression of choice" and laying out her position: mitigation with or without litigation.

The underlying issue is the deletion of decades-old plans for the 19th Street Bridge from the county's Master Plan of Arterial Highways. Citing permitting difficulties, high costs, unpopularity and other obstacles, OCTA deleted plans for the bridge across the Santa Ana River during its March 12 meeting.

The decision was popular with hundreds of Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa residents, who would have seen more traffic, but less so in Newport Beach, which deals with the traffic routed through Pacific Coast Highway.

"Because the bridge has been part of the county's backbone of infrastructure, studies show that without the bridge, impacts to intersections occur in all the three cities, including Brookhurst [Street] and Hamilton [Avenue] in Huntington Beach, Newport [Boulevard] at Hospital Road and Superior [Avenue] at 17th Street in Costa Mesa," Daigle wrote.


The decision to sue

In February, Daigle called for Newport and OCTA staff to work together on alternatives to the bridge, and the council voted in support of the idea. The letter sent by the city suggests the alternative of extending the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway as a tunnel through Costa Mesa.

Instead of doing another study, OCTA killed the bridge; the city of Newport Beach responded March 27 with the lawsuit decision.

Councilman Keith Curry opposed the lawsuit on the grounds that it's a waste of tax dollars for public agencies to sue each other, but nobody sided with him in the council discussion.

The lawsuit was announced right after the closed session March 27, with Harp describing it as a suit to get OCTA to "do appropriate environmental analysis in order to consider appropriate mitigation measures related to the deletion of the bridge." He did not announce a vote, just saying the lawsuit had been authorized.

Whether the decision was a vote or an informal consensus is in dispute for obscure reasons.

None of the council members contacted for this article wanted to discuss the issue publicly due to the confidentiality of the closed sessions. Daigle, in her letter, however, stated there was never a vote at all.


After the meeting

Local activist Bob Rush, who is running as a Democrat against Daigle, a Republican, for the 74th Assembly District seat, emailed Harp the day after the meeting to ask for the vote count. State law requires that the vote count on most confidential decisions be made public.

Harp emailed every council member regarding Rush's question, then sent Rush this response the next afternoon: "The vote was 6 to 1 with Keith Curry opposed to the litigation."

That email found its way to Wu, who called Daigle's action a vote and opined that she had "done quite a job to create some serious agitation for Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach residents," and that it would be "another few years before someone on the Newport Beach City Council gets to move up to the big leagues."

Rush seized on the lawsuit too, putting out a press release that accused Daigle of telling bridge opponents one thing and then voting with the City Council "to file a legal action to support the bridge."

The contention that the lawsuit is "to support the bridge" belongs to Rush; neither Wu nor Pilot reporter Sarah Peters, who wrote the original news story, characterized it that way, as it's unknown what type of legal action the city will eventually file.

But in Harp's Tuesday statement, he attributed the characterization to the Pilot: "The Daily Pilot incorrectly stated that the Newport Beach City Council voted 6 to 1 in favor of suing the OCTA to put the bridge on the master plan based on the city's characterization of the 'consensus' of the City Council as being a vote."

The Pilot had reported simply that the lawsuit was "regarding" the removal of the bridge.

The upshot is that the issue will be brought back to the council Tuesday, where a vote can be taken with official electronic clickers.

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