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    Bowing to Port Potentates: A Self-Respecting Council Can't

    (Sept. 6, 2004) -- After publishing multiple editorials supporting AB 2042 (no increased air pollution from port growth), including one urging the Governor to sign the bill, the Long Beach Press Telegram carried a bizarre editorial on Sunday Sept. 5.

    It justified a May 2, 2004 vote by LB's non-elected (Mayor chosen, Council approved) "Board of Harbor Commissioners" to oppose the bill...and went on to justify actions by the Port urging Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the measure that the PT had endorsed.

    In its Sept. 5 editorial, the PT told readers that "any one of [the incumbent LB Harbor Commissioners] understands the complexities and challenges of a multibillion-dollar port better than all of the council members (and most of the city staff) put together" and advised the City Council to "appreciate, not deprecate, the advantages of having a port commission insulated from the paybacks and compromises of city politics. The governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, can only benefit by having commissioners' advice before having to sign (or veto) a piece of legislation with such impact on the port and, as well, the economy of the entire state."

    What happened? We dunno...but we wonder whether something may have occurred between Port officialdom and the PT that resembled the following:

    For the record: we think it's just fine when a PT editorial makes no sense. We also think it's fine if shipping interests oppose legislation contrary to their interests.

    What's not fine with us, and should not be acceptable to any LB resident, is for a LB public entity to use public resources (port fees) to oppose measures to protect public health and safety that this city's elected Councilmembers have voted to support.

    We believe the Lowenthal bill is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Months ago, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R, HB-LB-PV) introduced an important, sensible bill to let Ports impose a fee to pay for inspecting currently uninspected cargo containers. It would save taxpayers millions. It would neutralize complaints about not having money to do the inspecting. It would give Ports powers they don't have now.

    Multiple media accounts have shown how little is being done to secure the Port of LB. If the Long Beach City Council were to urge Congress to pass the Rohrabacher bill, do you think the Port of LB should use public resources to oppose it?

    (The PT has previously said nice things about the Rohrabacher bill, but that was before its genuflection to the Port on the Lowenthal bill.)

    The Port of LB doesn't routinely disclose many of the legislative and regulatory measures it supports or opposes (either directly or through lobbying mouthpieces like the "American Association of Port Authorities" or "California Association of Port Authorities"). Why should it? The Port of LB operates largely out of the public's control. This must change.

    The Harbor Commission's May 2004 vote opposing Lowenthal's AB 2042 was particularly contemptuous, coming just one day before an agendized Council vote stating the city's position on the bill. The Council vote on AB 2042 was 8-0 (Colonna absent for the meeting) to support the clean air measure that the Port opposed as written.

    The resulting policy schizophrenia -- in which two entities of the same City took conflicting positions on a major piece of pending legislation -- hurts Long Beach. A city that speaks with two voices has no voice.

    On Sept. 7, the City Council is scheduled to discuss a praiseworthy item by Councilmembers Tonia Reyes Uranga and Rae Gabelich to address this. It would begin the process of writing a Charter Amendment to change the way the Port is now run. This has been done before and can be done again...and would require a vote of the people.

    That process is necessary because those who wrote LB's current City Charter craftily made the Port basically a law unto itself, largely beyond public control even on some matters affecting health, safety and security beyond the Port's boundaries.

    In view of what's happened over the past two decades on pollution, growth and security, no self-respecting LB lawmaker -- whose job it is to ensure the health, safety and security of LB residents -- can continue to accept the status quo.

    The current Charter handed the Board of Harbor Commissioners "exclusive power and duty for and on behalf of the City" over many port related items, including to "promote the maritime and commercial interests by proper advertisement of its advantages, and by the solicitation of business, within or without the Harbor District, within the State of California or other states or in foreign countries, through such employees and agencies as it may deem expedient."

    What years of LB's non-elected Port potentates deemed "expedient" has produced part of the region's largest stationary source of air pollutants, with multiple airborne toxins linked to cancer, pulmonary diseases and asthma in areas generally following the 710 freeway route to the ports. The Port invited growth beyond sustainable levels, clogging the 710 freeway even after it became clear that truck lanes at first indicated as part of the Alameda Corridor would never materialize.

    This is on top of an alarming, scandalous lack of real (not paperwork) inspections of Port containers nearly three years after 9-11-01.

    LB can simply no longer afford two voices on what takes place in our Port.

    The Council apparently does have a line-item veto over the Port's budget. Section 1210 of the City Charter says the Council "shall...approve the budget adopted by the [Harbor] Commission or shall amend said budget and approve the same as amended..."

    But can the Council amend the Harbor Dept. budget just to remove sums for legislative and regulatory advocacy? If the Council can't do that, and if the Port continues to act in virtual disregard of Council stated policies, then LB's elected Council has no choice but to pursue public control for the publicly owned Port. Democracy. What a concept.

    The PT's Sept. 5 editorial, which acknowledges that the paper supported AB 2042 and disagrees with the Harbor Commissioners' position on the legislation, concludes by stating that it still supports the "goals" of the bill. This squeamish formulation follows the tapdance response given by Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill on August 30 when an L.A. Times reporter and asked her about AB 2042.

    There's no longer room for equivocation on a root cause of too many issues that now impact LB's health, safety and security. On Sept. 7, we urge the LB City Council to:

  • (1) State its unequivocal support for AB 2042 and direct City Manager to communicate this to the Governor's office forthwith; and

  • (2) Direct the City Attorney to draft a Charter Amendment that, on a vote of the people, will divest LB's current "Board of Harbor Commissioners" of all authority to govern the Port of LB...and either vest that authority in the City Council or in a newly constituted, publicly elected Board of Harbor Commissioners whose powers will be more circumscribed and who will be accountable to the public that elects them..

    We urge the Council motion to request that the Mayor convene a meeting of the Council's Charter Amendment Committee (comprised of all Councilmembers) within thirty days of receiving that draft from the City Attorney.

    To emphasize the need for this, we urge Councilmembers to subsequently agendize for an upcoming Council meeting a resolution to support Congressional legislation that would let the Port to levy a container security fee (Cong. Rohrabacher's measure). If the Port of LB stubbornly opposes this sensible, taxpayer-friendly measure, it will hasten the process of change.

    If the incumbent Harbor Commissioners react by threatening to withhold their previously promised annual transfer of a small percentage of Port revenue to LB City Hall, they will pour more fuel on the fire and demonstrate exactly why change is needed. With a well written Charter Amendment, the Council or publicly elected (and recallable) Commissioners will decide that revenue transfer in the future.

    Some will say the Port of LB is well run and operates in a businesslike fashion. We happen to respect the people managing the Port of LB. However, we know of no successful private sector business whose Board of Directors would seriously assert an entitlement to growth even if it creates more pollution, unabated terrorist risks and expects taxpayers to pay millions (effectively a subsidy) to enlarge freeways and build new infrastructure.

    The health, safety and security risks brought by the Port of LB could only occur via a basically non-accountable government body.

    We hope Governor Schwarzenegger signs AB 2042. His bold Agenda to Bring California Back told voters last year:

    California's economic future depends significantly on the quality of our environment. We face serious environmental challenges, which have profound impact on public health and the economy.

    "Jobs vs. the environment" is a false choice. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that clean air and water result in a more productive workforce, and a healthier economy, which will contribute to a balanced state budget.

    Moreover, it is children who suffer disproportionate impacts of environmental toxins. Studies show that children who live near freeways, for example, suffer significantly higher asthma rates and learning disabilities...

    Breathing clean and healthy air is a right of all Californians, especially our children, whose health suffers disproportionately when our air is polluted. The future health of California's environment and economy depend on our taking action now.

    If AB 2042 is vetoed, it will provide another reason why LB must never again speak with two voices on public health, safety and security.

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