Feb. 4 2004 12:00 AM

Mayor flaps his flippers for SeaWorld


    In Mayor Dick "Nero" Murphy's myopic eyes, Rome is made of Teflon and will never burn. News that the country's investment wizards, like Moody's, view San Diego as a burgeoning fiscal black hole prompts nary a perceived shudder from His Dullness. While many point to the sky and shout, "The end is near!" Murphy simply buffs his glasses and burps, "It's not a crisis."

    Ah, such calm, cool leadership. Nothing seems to bug this mayor, except perhaps a professional football team tinkling into his Gatorade for kicks-or, as CityBeat has learned, anyone threatening to tell SeaWorld what it should be doing on publicly owned Mission Bay Park real estate.

    For years, activists and political observers have questioned the cozy relationship between the mayor's office and the marine-oriented theme park-not to mention its parent corporation, beer-bellied Anheuser-Busch. Before slipping into City Hall, John Kern, Murphy's chief of staff, served at the pleasure of the corporate giant, even running its multi-million-dollar initiative campaign in 1998 to exempt SeaWorld from the city's 30-foot-height limit on coastal construction, just so it could build a towering thrill ride on parkland.

    But while you'll probably never hear the mayor shout "Enough is enough!" when it comes to the city's imploding fiscal picture and poor decision making, the mayor's office now apparently has moved into crisis mode over mounting concerns that this thrill ride, dubbed "Journey to Atlantis," may be sitting atop a portion of the old Mission Bay Landfill, which during the 1950s-and perhaps earlier-served as an unregulated dumping ground for various types of toxic waste from military installations and defense contractors.

    Figuring out just what lurks beneath the surface of Mission Bay Park's southeast corner is a task that City Councilmember Donna Frye has taken on, despite lukewarm support from her council colleagues. The Mission Bay Landfill Technical Advisory Committee, which Frye has led since its inception in August 2002, has brought the city closer than ever to determining just what toxins may remain in the dump-and whether they continue to seep into popular Mission Bay.

    But for Murphy-whose mayoral philosophy seems hitched to the concept of information gathering through task forces-Frye's committee is simply an annoyance to be ignored when it displeases his political suitors.

    Case in point: A request to revoke SeaWorld's coastal permit for the thrill ride, based on allegations that park executives withheld pertinent information about toxic concerns, is scheduled to be heard in two weeks by the California Coastal Commission, which will be meeting in town.

    The request, made by Long Beach-based California Earth Corps, is based on the activist group's contention that "Journey to Atlantis" is being built on top of the old dump. Old aerial photos of the area seem to indicate just that, but it might not be enough to convince coastal commissioners to backtrack on a previous decision.

    But the mayor's office apparently didn't want to leave anything to chance. In a Dec. 12 letter addressed to the chairman of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, Murphy pleaded, "As a lead monitoring agency for Mission Bay Landfill, your testimony would assist [coastal] Commissioners in finding that the landfill adjacent to SeaWorld's current construction poses no threat to public health or safety."

    Granted, Murphy has appeared overwhelmed by public-safety matters of late, but news that the mayor was seeking testimony favorable to SeaWorld came as quite a surprise to Frye.

    "Aaaagh, the statement that there's no problem-when you can't know that!" an incredulous Frye said to CityBeat. She also wonders how the mayor can offer an opinion on a topic that has never been discussed at the council level. "The issue of whether there should be a permit revocation has never been before the council," she said.

    But, apparently, the mayor has already received his marching orders from the Beer People. What stunned Frye even more was learning that the mayor's office participated in a Nov. 19 meeting with staff from the city manager's office, the city's Environmental Services Department and-most surprisingly-three SeaWorld representatives, including two heavyweight political lobbyists-Dave Nielsen of MNA Consulting, representing Anheuser-Busch's interests, and David Watson, who has lobbied for SeaWorld in the past before becoming the mayor's go-to task force guy.

    Chris Gonaver, the deputy director of Environmental Services who is the lead city staffer on the landfill committee, confirmed the meeting to CityBeat but so far has declined to detail the discussion that occurred at that session. But judging by the letter, the mayor's senior policy adviser on land use and the environment, Tom Story, came away giddy for Shamu.

    "Every credible expert, every credible study and every agency with jurisdiction over the landfill has concluded there is no public health problem," cried the letter, signed by Murphy but initialed "ts"-presumably for Tom Story.

    About a month later, a Regional Water Quality official wrote Michael Reilly, the Coastal Commission chairman, declining Murphy's "invitation" to testify at the upcoming commission meeting.

    "... [I]t is not appropriate for the RWQCB to specifically comment on the proposed SeaWorld splashdown ride," said water-quality Executive Officer John H. Robertus in a Jan. 9 letter. A copy of that letter was sent to Murphy and Frye, with the explicit request to distribute it to all members of the landfill committee.

    While other agencies weren't falling for Murphy's ploy, Frye was clearly disappointed in the mayor's snubbing of her hard-working advisory committee. She also is curious why SeaWorld didn't test the soil dug out for the thrill ride when park executives were well aware of her committee's task.

    "No one [at SeaWorld] thought to ask us to pull a sample, and that does not make sense to me, given the fact how much time and energy I've put into this as well as all the people who have volunteered," Frye said. "I mean, it's not like it's a board of lightweights. These are very knowledgeable people."

    Frye said she intends to ask the Coastal Commission to require SeaWorld to take soil samples at the thrill-ride site. "I don't think it would be unreasonable to ask," she said, "because the city is certainly spending money there. How hard would it be?"

    Murphy did not respond to CityBeat's request for comment.

    Tell all: spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.

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