Port Misauthority

by Carolyn Chase


he Port of San Diego's public relations slogan: "Discover what's in it for you" took on a new spin when the Grand Jury released the findings from it's recent round of investigations. Some of the things reported to be "in it for" the general public include: "combative and non-cooperative relationship with regulatory agencies; filing lawsuits against the public interest; failure to sign perjury declarations on self-monitoring reports; erroneous reports concerning status of pollutants in the bay; failure to provide adequate resources and take required actions to implement storm water requirements; and an overall lack of accountability" to both the public and the duties they are charged with by the State.

The grand jury is a body of 19 citizens who are charged and sworn to investigate county matters of civil concern as well as inquire into public offenses committed or triable within the county. Members are nominated by Superior and Municipal Court Judges to serve one-year terms.

The grand jury reviews and evaluates procedures, methods and systems utilized by government to determine whether they can be made more efficient and effective. It may examine any aspect of county government and city government, including special
legislative districts and joint powers agencies, to ensure that the best interests of San Diego County citizens are being served. The grand jury may also inquire into written complaints brought to it by the public.

The 1986-87 County Grand Jury investigation of the Port stated "Accountability to the public, particularly as it pertains to the port budget, the budget process, financial disclosure and hearing is perceived to be absent."

Ten years later, this Grand Jury can add: "that the Port is too focused on economic development and not sufficiently attuned to environmental and non-commercial concerns" and "While the Port conducts more public hearings now and does issue copies of general figures in its budget, it is no more directly accountable to the voting public than before."

The San Diego Unified Port District is not a city or county government. It is not a branch of the state government. It is an autonomous local agency which provides services to a specific area.

San Diego Bay comprises 10,532 acres of water surrounded by 4,419 acres of tideland. When California entered the union in 1850, it acquired title to navigable waterways as trustee to protect the resources of public lands, streams, lakes, marshlands and tidelands.

The seven commissioners of the PD are appointed by the city councils of each of the five contiguous cities around the Bay. The amount of money taken in and expended by the PD has nearly tripled in little over a decade. Capital expenditures have totaled over a half-billion dollars during the same period. Taxpayers and the general public directly or indirectly pay for the goods and services provided by the approximately 600 PD tenants.

The Grand Jury concluded "The State of California charged the PD at its inception with responsibilities regarding six categories of bay usage (navigation, recreation, fisheries, commerce, aviation and wildlife conservation). These emphases appear to have been skewed by the PD toward economic development and away from sufficient attention to environmental and non-commercial concerns. The PD Board of Commissioners are not formally required to report their activities even to the city councils which appointed them. They are viewed as operating with almost unlimited discretion regarding how they may spend money with minimal accountability. Commissioners are not required to gain approval for their actions from the voting public or even from the city councils which appoint them."

Interviews were conducted with PD staff, county and city environmental officials, local environmentalists, the Coast Guard, ten other California Port Districts and with the five City Council offices making up the PD membership.

The Grand Jury recommended that the PD re-order its priorities to elevate environmental protection.

But the Port doesn't "get it," Their immediate response: resort to glossing it over in the media. They doctored a quote by the Executive Officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board John Robertus, and used it in a manner that appeared to exonerate the Port from the environmental criticism of the Grand Jury.

The press release erroneously quoted Robertus as saying the port district is "second to none when it comes to safeguarding water quality and seeking to improve the bay environment." Robertus wrote them a strong letter of rebuke. While accepting their apology, he stated that he "did not" and "would not" make that statement.

While this recent development is outrageous, it is most constructive to focus on exactly where the Port could go from here to improve their commitments to a clean Bay.

The Jury recommended: "In the interest of the general public they are charged to serve, the PD Board of Commissioners and staff should re-order priorities to fully meet their responsibility for environmental quality of the bay as well as using the bay as an engine for economic development."

Here's what can be done right away to improve their commitment to their legally delegated stewardship of the Bay:

1. Immediately and fully cooperate with the Fish and Wildlife Service to form the South Bay Unit of the National Wildlife Refuge.

2. Act to prevent polluted runoff by designing protection into the Airport Master Plan and support a strong renewed municipal stormwater permit.

3. Adopt a strong Integrated Pest Management Policy and implement aggressive pollution prevention measures including pollution prevention audits for its activities and include specific requirements for preventing pollution in leases.

At the same time, our State delegation should pursue the necessary changes to bring the Port Charter into the modern age. It is time for the Charter to improve accountability and reflect the priority of protecting the environment of San Diego Bay as originally intended for the public.

The potential of the Port District to do right by the Bay is great. The Port is in a perfect position to powerfully wed economic development with environmental protection - and provide much-needed leadership. Not only that, this report makes it clear that it is indeed their legal duty to do so. But since there are no accountability mechanisms in place, the commitment is really up to the Commissioners and the staff themselves to fulfill that mission and do that part of the job. Now if only they could get some folks over there who understand that - that what should be in it for them - and for us - is a clean, healthy Bay. If the will is there, the power and resources of the Port will make it easy to prove their new commitment to the environment.