April 27 2016 01:18 PM

A fuzzy visit to the lair of a quasi-governmental giant

Do port officials have a message for activist Cory Briggs?
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
We do have a zeal for laughter in most situations, give or take a dentist.

—Joseph Heller

It had been a while—four score and seven years ago, perhaps— since Spin Cycle had paid a visit to “The Rock,” the not-so-flattering nickname given the World War II-era box of a headquarters for the San Diego Unified Port District on Pacific Highway. It’s probably a good thing the pain meds were starting to kick in.

The gawd-awful, oversized block of concrete had changed very little. Oh, a whimsical publicart tree topped with a shanty birdhouse had risen from the parking lot, momentarily distracting the eye from the massive freeway overpasses hovering nearby. Once inside, though, it all seemed familiar—except for the elderly guard standing by the metal detector and a single, lonely looking plastic container awaiting Spin’s ore-based possessions.

No drug tests were administered prior to reaching the cavelike boardroom just a shuffle away from detector central. Not that Spin was anticipating such a thing, but Norco—a gift foisted upon Spin the day before following a blurry visit to the neighborhood oral surgeon—is a precocious mistress, eager to play mind games.

Upon entering the boardroom, a flood of memories returned: how uniformly dressed most attendees are, particularly port staff who apparently all shop at the same Brooks Brothers and share an affinity for dark charcoal hues. (The exception was San Diego City Councilmember Lorie Zapf’s for mer chief of staff, Job Nelson, now a port policy bigwig, who sported something in brown. “I decided to go with tan…” Spin overheard Nelson telling his charcoal brethren before the little voice inside said to look away.)

Scheduled as a budget workshop, Thursday’s special meeting of port commissioners had taken on a portentous sheen after activist attorney Cory Briggs began shouting from the Twitter rafters earlier in the week that the session was cover for an impending “power grab.”

“@portofsandiego holds ‘budget workshop’ to pass ordinance making all city laws affecting port ‘void,’” one Briggs tweet trumpeted, later followed by “With @portofsandiego power grab, it could block the voters’ will on anything that hurts port tenants.”

Briggs tweet-skewered commissioners as “unelected appointees” harboring “zero accountability to voters” but wielding immense power that aims to “screw” Chula Vista’s bayfront plan and tie up downtown stadium plans for “years in court”—all because it wants to protect “its own.”

“Anyone who cares about not screwing voters, protecting democracy,” Briggs typed from the mountaintop, “should go” to the meeting. As Chargers fans began to respond on social media, Briggs advised them to attend the meeting and urge a no vote or a continuance.

But as the meeting got going, it was clear that advice went unheeded.

“I look forward to a productive day,” port Chairman and former District 1 city council hopeful Marshall Merrifield declared to open the meeting. “Madam president, lead the pledge for us.”

Pain meds fully unfurled, Spin rose, thinking some pagan ritual was about to go down, swearing an oath to rid port tidelands of all that is revenue-neutral and bearing witness to the god Nepture. Instead, it was just the Pledge of Allegiance, which Spin aced.

Then a representative for tuna fishermen came forth to lament how long it’s been since the local economic impact of commercial fisheries had been studied. “I think that needs to be done very quickly,” he implored, while also noting, “I’m actually having a little trouble both with my computer and my car talking back to me.”

But before Spin could determine if the meds were affecting auditory skills, commissioners moved on to the pre-workshop action of the day, or as Merrifield titillatingly described it, “an ordinance amending the part of 8 of the San Diego Port District Code, Section 8.2, confirming San Diego Unified Port District’s authority over local laws.”

Spin’s ears perked up, only to be beaten down over the next excruciating 10 minutes while a port attorney delivered a Cliff’s Notes soliloquy about the formation of the Port District by an act of the California Legislature in 1962.

“As such the port was formed under the San Diego Unified Port Act and that is codified in Harbors and Navigation Code Appendix 1,” the attorney droned on as Spin contemplated the purpose of the appendix.

The rest of the meeting is foggy, but Spin knows two things: Port commissioners want autonomy from its five member cities on such heathen topics as smoking and marijuana use. Coronado’s commissioner, retired Rear Adm. Garry Bonelli, wondered aloud how visitors are supposed to know “what they’re doing is breaking the law or not” when it comes to “smoking marijuana or just smoking in general?”

“Particularly after smoking marijuana!” Chairman Merrifield added as the room erupted in laughter.

Spin wandered back into the sunlight as the commissioners voted unanimously.

A bit later, Spin reached out to San Diego Commissioner Bob Nelson, a well-connected gentleman who typically speaks clear English.

Briggs described the ordinance passage as a “precursor to a lawsuit” the port will file challenging the Citizens Plan ballot measure he authored on behalf of his client San Diegans for Open Government and is confident will qualify for the November ballot.

“Let them sue,” Briggs told Spin. “We’ll win.”

Nelson chuckled when asked if this were so. “No, it’s not really… This would happen with or without the Citizens Plan,” he said, launching into the “botched” attempt in 2013 when then-mayor Bob Filner vetoed two port appointments only to be thwarted by state law. “It was the point,” Nelson said, “where I realized there are too many people who don’t bother to crack open the state law books. They don’t understand we’re different.”

A breakfast in late February between City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and port general counsel Tom Russell should not suggest collusion on a gamble with Mayor Kevin Faulconer to crush anything Briggs-related, Nelson insisted. “They meet all the time,” he added of the legal duo. “I assure you that none of these ordinances we’re adopting are being promulgated or instigated or anything else by any place outside of the port,” Nelson said.

“The Citizens Plan does not force the port to do anything of which I am aware,” plan backer Donna Frye told Spin. The port, from a boosted hotel-tax rate, would receive matching money if it wants to build park and recreational facilities. But it’s voluntary.

The cash-hungry port declining money? Whoa, Spin’s getting off the Norco pronto.


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