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Critics Say SD Port Commissioners Lack Oversight

Above: The North Embarcadero is located along the harbor on the east side of San Diego Bay.

Audio

Aired 7/15/09

The Port of San Diego controls more than 5,000 acres of tidelands and 10,000 acres of the bay. The port is governed by seven unelected commissioners. They decide what to build on the waterfront, how to promote trade and how to keep the bay clean. Critics say that’s too much power with too little oversight.

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: Reporter Amita Sharma talks to host Gloria Penner about how the Port of San Diego is tracking its revenue and expenses and posting its profits.

Imperial Beach and the San Diego Unified Port District have partnered on several projects to revitalize some of the popular oceanfront areas, including the landmark Imperial Beach Pier.
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Above: Imperial Beach and the San Diego Unified Port District have partnered on several projects to revitalize some of the popular oceanfront areas, including the landmark Imperial Beach Pier.

In National City, the Port manages Pepper -- a recreational haven for families, boaters and fishermen.
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Above: In National City, the Port manages Pepper -- a recreational haven for families, boaters and fishermen.

Flickr

The waterfront 760,000-square-foot San Diego Convention Center opened in 1989 and cost $165 million.

— The Port of San Diego controls more than 5,000 acres of tidelands and 10,000 acres of the bay. The port is governed by seven unelected commissioners. They decide what to build on the waterfront, how to promote trade and how to keep the bay clean. Critics say that’s too much power with too little oversight.

Technically, San Diego’s seven port commissioners would be accountable to the California Legislature that created them.

“The state legislature is 500 miles away and the last thing they have of interest is things that go on in San Diego,” says National City Mayor Ron Morrison.

So the reality, says Morrison, is that the region’s port commissioners are answerable to no one.

“Some of the most prime property in Southern California is at their fingertips, and what is done with it or not done with it and how is that fairly distributed. In our case we have 3 miles of waterfront between the Navy and the port -- not one inch is for public access to the actual bayfront.”

One reason for limited public access to the bayfront says San Diego activist Ian Trowbridge may be that taxpayers are shut out of the port’s decision-making process.

“The change in the Broadway Pier took place in 2007 without any public input -- not even the coastal commission knew about it,” says Trowbridge. “The port has discussions about what trees to plant, what color the paving should be. But they don’t consider the real issues at all in public. The public is shut out for those discussions.”

Port Commissioner Steve Cushman says commissioners are accountable, just not to local constituents.

“We do not represent the citizens of San Diego or the member cities. We are trustees of the State of California,” he says. “We are overseen by the state lands commission. We are obviously available to meet with any of the councilmembers, to meet with the mayor, to appear in public, in front of city councils if they have questions.”

Commissioners are appointed by city councils and mayors. The rules say they can serve for no more than two four-year terms. In 2007, Commissioner Cushman was appointed to a third term with the help of labor and waterfront businesses. Cushman is seen as a port boss. Little gets done without his approval.

Former San Diego City Councilman.and current Port Commissioner Scott Peters says he opposed a third term for Cushman. San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio says Peters himself should have never been appointed to the commission.

“You had a councilmember who gave away special benefits when we did not have the money. You had a councilmember approve false and misleading financial statements. This was an attorney. He should have known better. And now he’s presiding over this multi-billion dollar enterprise, the Port of San Diego.”

Peters says the majority of the council did not share DeMaio’s concerns.

“I certainly understand how once councilmember might have a different view than the majority of the city council did back in November, and it’s his certainly his right to have that view,” says Peters.

DeMaio says the port district is largely off the public’s radar.

“It’s all the more reason why you need to be even more vigilant about reviewing the financial performance outcomes of those agencies to make sure that the taxpayer truly is benefitting,” he says.

Over the past 15 years, the port has lost $80 million.

“The port spends a lot of money. Are they accountable for what they spend?”

Jim Kelly was a San Diego County grand jury foreman in 1998. The grand jury found even then that the port commission was not accountable for its actions to “anyone in this county.”

“They were more or less autonomous. And they still are. So perhaps it’s time to have those positions be elected those positions.”

But Commissioner Peters says, “I don’t think there’s an appetite in the county to create another elected body. Now you’re starting to have a situation where you have elected bodies working at odds.”

On the other hand, UCSD Political Scientist Steve Erie says requiring port commissioners to be elected rather than appointed would create some degree of accountability.

“At least then, voters can throw the rascals out,” says Erie.

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