Newport ponders Harbor Commission

The waters around Newport Beach — glittering in its harbor and crashing in waves on its ocean beaches — are perhaps the city's most prized resource.

Heading into the new year, the Newport Beach City Council will again take up the sometimes-thorny issue of how to best manage them.

Though nothing was set in stone at a November study session on the matter, officials said, improving the coordination between the city's Harbor Commission and the council is high on 2013's agenda.

"The overarching goal of all of this is to provide for the long-term proactive maintenance and improvement of the harbor," Councilman Mike Henn said Friday. "And I believe that's a goal everyone signs on for."

But whether that goal is best achieved with heavier council involvement in the commission has proved something of a sticking point.

At the Nov. 28 workshop, it was suggested that the decade-old Harbor Commission, which consists of seven citizen members appointed by the council, be folded in with a future incarnation of the Tidelands Management Committee.

That proposed body, the city suggested, would include both council members and appointees to "dovetail" the work of the newly reestablished Water Quality/Coastal Tidelands Management Committee, which is intended to focus more on ocean beaches.

The study session followed the council's Nov. 27 vote to restructure what was the Coastal/Bay Water Quality Advisory Committee (renamed the Water Quality/Coastal Tidelands Management Committee) and to extend the life of the Tidelands Management Committee, which was scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

"When you look at [the two proposed committees] together, it's good, strong governance for all the tidelands," Henn had said.

Current harbor commissioners, however, didn't take well to that idea.

"A different structure would bring the council more directly into this, I think at the expense of losing something that's become a tradition in this community, which is the Harbor Commission," Commission Chairman Doug West said at the meeting. "We think there's been potential for that being much more efficient than it has been."

Henn said Friday that based on the input gathered at the study session, it was "pretty clear" that the Harbor Commission "should remain a commission of citizens."

It also seemed clear, though, that the Tidelands Management Committee — which is now scheduled to expire at the end of March — was more effectively working with the council to move harbor improvement plans forward, Councilwoman Nancy Gardner said Friday.

Gardner, along with Henn and Councilman Ed Selich, were part of a council task force on committees, which aimed to standardize and streamline various committee structures.

"Our experience with the Tidelands Management Committee was that it was very effective," she said.

Members of the Harbor Commission on the other hand, had "seemed frustrated that things they were doing didn't seem to get through," she said.

The commission typically studies issues, then makes recommendations to the council for possible action.

So, Gardner said, the suggestion that the commission be folded in with the Tidelands Management Committee was conceived as a way of responding to that frustration.

And, Henn said, the job at hand for any bodies managing the harbor is a big one, with various major infrastructure projects, such as seawall replacement, looming in the not-so-distant future.

West said Friday that with proper "accountability between the Harbor Commission and the council," the commission will be up to the task.

"The Harbor Commission has a very robust agenda for the current year," he said. "We're working very hard and aggressively."

Commissioner Ralph Rodheim said Friday that he appreciates the council's focus on the harbor and that he believes the issue of whether to restructure the commission is "behind us."

Instead, he said he'd recommend a subcommittee of the City Council designated to "work very closely with the commission."

Whatever the solution is, Henn said he hopes the council will "get that sorted out and move on" in January or February.

As for the Coastal/Bay Water Quality Advisory Committee, Gardner said, rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

In a letter recently published in the Daily Pilot, resident Randy Seton mourned its passing.

Gardner said that though it was renamed, not much about the committee has changed. It has a refined mission to avoid redundancy with other groups, and its structure is more in line with that of other commissions.

Most current members will continue to have a role in the committee, she said.

"Because the mission has slightly changed, everybody has to reapply," she said. "It will continue to do what it does."

Twitter: @jillcowan

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