Management of the approximate 1,220 onshore and offshore moorings in Newport Harbor may soon switch hands from county to city control, following a meeting last week.
City staff presented a program that would allow the city to take over administration of the moorings from the Orange County Sheriff‘s Department Harbor Patrol during a Newport Beach City Council study session on April 11
The primary goal is increased enjoyment of the harbor for all users, Councilman Brad Avery said.
“We want to make the harbor more welcoming for visitors and a more pleasant experience for residents,” Avery noted.
The aim is to try and make “life on the moorings better,” added Mayor Pro Tem Marshall “Duffy“ Duffield.
City staff does a lot of work regarding the moorings already, Duffield pointed out.
“There’s always been this kind of crossover,” he said. “This is a model we’re going to experiment with.”
The proposed program is meant to be more customer service oriented, and – simply – makes more sense to people (by having one contact number, assisting with multiple services, etc.) and, overall, becoming more user-friendly, explained City Manager Dave Kiff.
“The concept behind this is a distinctly different model,” Kiff noted.
How, when and where the harbor is patrolled, code enforcement, and the system that manages the moorings, and the use of technology – both mobile phone apps and online services- will all make a big difference, he said.
“We’re optimistic this will be significantly less expensive,” Kiff said.
In 2016, the city entered into a five-year contract with OCSD. This year, the cost is approximately $313,000, and that amount is likely to increases by about $8,000 every year in the contract.
Budget and staffing need to be worked out, Kiff said. Other “critical issues” include considering the date and time and hours of operation and the high and low use times.
There is a 90-day notice of cancellation period required, which Kiff sent on March 31. Staff hopes to run the pilot testing period between July and September. They will be taking a lot of feedback and fine-tuning, Avery noted.
It’s not really a “testing period” if the city has already sent un a notice of termination to the county, Councilman Will O’Neill pointed out.
“At that point, it’s ours,” he said.
He was curious if the city hasn’t resolved the “critical issues” staff mentioned or the program is not ready what the possible ramifications would be.
“I’m a little concerned about this,” O’Neill said.
In that scenario, an interim agreement, subject to negotiation, would likely need to be worked out with the county, said City Attorney Aaron Harp.
The city has a good relationship with Harbor Patrol and they are willing to work with the city during the transition, Kiff noted. At the same time, the sheriff’s department has told the city they would “love to get out of this,” Kiff stated. The OCSD considers it to be a “financial drain,” he added.
“I think that’s why they’re being so helpful in passing this on,” Kiff said.
That delicate balance didn’t assuage O’Neill’s apprehension,
“That actually concerns me a little bit more,” he replied.
If the OCSD sees it as a “financial drain” and eagerly wants to pass the control on, O’Neill questions whether it would be a financially responsible program for the city to take over.
Staff has taken the issue very seriously and understand that it’s a priority to get the program ready in time, Kiff confirmed.
“There are some unknowns here,” Avery admitted. “It’s certainly not without risk.”
The idea has been talked about for some time, and staff has worked hard on the plan recently, Avery said.
Under the new program, rentals of vacant moorings would be handled by the city, possibly using a mobile phone app. Towing would likely be done by an outside contractor. Permit information would be handled at an office at Marina Park. Staff also suggested creating a “harbor master” position.
Officials also explored a few different ways to handle the mooring administration, including part-time employees, volunteers and contracts with local companies.
“People who have a passionate interest and love for the harbor that might want to be a part of the model,” Kiff explained.
Staff hopes to improve visitor experience and knowledge of the harbor amenities and resources.
Kiff also wondered what additional services the city could provide with the new program.
“How can we add value for the mooring holders?” he asked. “We do need to make sure this model is safe and efficient and welcomed by the mooring community.”
An on-water nuisance/code enforcement plan could also be implemented.
It was a previously a complaint-based system, that worked in reaction as calls came in, the new proposed is based off of known areas and times when and where activity spikes, Avery explained.
The city would also need to acquire a vessel or two, Kiff noted. They could be rented or leased initially. Lightweight, fast boats that create little wake, like coach launchers, would be ideal.
During public comment, a few issues were raised, but most people supported the proposed plan, although there are still a few things to work out.
Brian Ouzounian liked the idea, but had some concerns, including whether the program would prevent Harbor Patrol from doing their job, as law enforcement, in emergency situations.
“The lines can be blurred” between the responsibilities of the Sheriff’s Department and city, he said, particularly during the transitional period.
“My backyard, with no fence, is supervised by Harbor Patrol,” and local police on the streets out front, Ouzounian said. “One way or the other it’s a line of defense.”
Carter Ford of the Newport Mooring Association said his number one concern would be which agency would be responsible for responding to “medical and property protection emergencies.”
“Those are very real,” Ford said. “People die out on the harbor sometimes.”
Although he felt confident they would figure it out before “getting out of the airplane without a parachute,” Ford said.
“We commend your courage to move forward with this level of dispatch,” Ford said.
He committed the NMA to help however they can and be involved with the program, when appropriate.
City staff confirmed that the OC Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol would still be on duty in the harbor.
They still will be involved with the law enforcement side of things, like fire suppression and emergency medical aid, Kiff confirmed.
“The Harbor Patrol has no intention of going away,” Avery added.
They will continue to patrol and “step in” and take action in an emergency situation, Avery said. There may be some adjustments down the line, as the two agencies work everything out, he added.
“There’s always going to be a role for the Harbor Patrol, this is not an attempt to beat them out of the harbor,” Kiff said.
They play a “critical” law enforcement role in the harbor, he added.
Staff also plans on getting input from the Harbor Commission at a meeting next month.
Harbor Commission Chair Paul Blank said he is “generally in favor with where this is headed.”
“This is, however, the first time I’m hearing of it,” Blank said. “I’m not exactly sure what will be expected of us at the May meeting.”
If the council wants any kind of specific action from the commission, “we’re going to need to know about it,” he said.