La prensa

PERSPECTIVE: Port District Biting the State Hand that Feeds It

SD Port District tidelands
Author: La Prensa
Created: 11 March, 2024
6 min read

Arturo CastañaresArturo Castañares

Imagine if the property management company of an apartment complex fought the landlord if it wanted to paint the building, plant new trees, or even replace the management company all together.

It would be the landlord’s right to exercise its control over the property even if it was not in the best interests of the management company itself. And there wouldn’t be anything the management could do to stop the landlord.

Such is the relationship between the San Diego Unified Port District (management company) and the State of California (landlord) with respect to the tidelands and coastal areas of San Diego Bay.

When California became a state on September 9, 1850, all of the submerged and coastal tidelands became public lands held in trust for the people of the State of California and limited in uses that serve statewide purposes.

In 1962, the ports of San Diego and National City, which had previously managed their respective tidelands, were merged into the San Diego Unified Port District by a bill passed by the California Legislature, the only entity empowered to decide the activities of State agencies.

Since then, the Port District has managed and expanded the use of coastal and bay tidelands of San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, Imperial Beach, and Coronado to include maritime activities, hotels, parks, tourist-serving commerce, and recreational uses. 

The Port District is managed by a seven-member Board of Commissioners appointed from the port cities, with San Diego having three commissioners and the other cities each having one.

All of the proceeds generated by the Port District are public monies, and are limited to be spent on activities that advance its trustee duties in service to the State.

But every so often, the Legislature acts to modify, rearrange, or even completely change the relationship with trustees, as has happened in San Diego, Los Angeles, and other port cities.

Article - Uber

Last month, State Assemblyman David Alvarez introduced a bill to add term limits and residency requirements to commissioners, adopt a code of ethics and an independent ethics board to review complaints, and a cooling-off period before former commissioners can lobby the Port District.

The proposal comes on the heels of a San Diego County Grand Jury report that criticized the Port’s governance structure and lack of transparency, and made eight separate recommendations for change.

The Port and its staff quickly opposed the Alvarez proposal because of the “unintended consequences and many negative impacts it would have on the people and businesses of our region,” Port spokesperson Brianne Mundy Page wrote in a statement.

But this isn’t the first time the Port District has opposed legislative changes proposed by local State Legislators who have the final say over state-created agencies.

In 2001, State Senator Steve Peace and State Assemblyman Howard Wayne followed a recommendation from the San Diego Regional Government Efficiency Commission to create a standalone agency to manage San Diego’s airport which had historically been under the Port District as the airport sits on state tidelands.

Assembly Bill 93, authored by Wayne (who recently passed away), eventually took the airport out from under the Port District and created the San Diego Regional Airport Authority, taking more than 50% of the Port’s revenues and shifting airport planning and operations responsibilities to the new Airport Authority with its own nine-member board, including some local elected officials.

During the year the legislation was working its way through the process, the Port District deployed its staff, lobbyists, friends, and even other ports throughout the state to fight the proposal, using taxpayer funds to fight taxpayer funds. 

During negotiations of the bill, the Port District demanded payment for lands taken by the proposal, traded off other lands under its control, and forced the new Airport Authority to take any staff members the Port District wanted to transfer off its books.

Article - Uber

The Port District acted more like a private business negotiating a sale or merger when it is, in fact, simply a trustee chosen by the state to manage its lands.

As the Biblical saying goes, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.

The Port District is not a sovereign agency with its own powers, lands, or money. It exists solely to serve as a trustee of, and for the benefit of, the people of the state.

And as such, the Port District should assist Alvarez in his pursuit of improvements, not expend any state taxpayer funds to oppose or fight the legislation aimed at making changes to -or even to disband it completely- if that is what the Legislature votes to do.

The Port District, through its public employees and unelected appointee Commissioners, should accept the will of the Legislature and its elected Legislators who represent the people of the state of California. 

Alvarez will still have to convince the rest of the San Diego legislative delegation and a majority of his statewide colleagues that his bill should pass, but the Port District should not be actively opposing the measure as it works its way through in Sacramento’s Capitol.

Local agencies, especially special districts like Port Districts, are obscure creatures that receive very little public scrutiny yet control valuable public lands and manage hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

But too often, agencies like this become like viruses with the only purpose being to continue to thrive even at the expense of its host.

Article - Uber

And like a virus, sometimes it takes a shot of tough medicine to control its unfettered growth.

Alvarez has a fight on his hands but it’s a fight worth having to ensure public transparency and accountability of an agency badly in need of both.

Castañares, as Publisher and Editor-at-Large of La Prensa San Diego, has won numerous media awards, including the prestigious Ruben Salazar Awards for Excellence in Print Journalism, the San Diego County Taxpayers' Association Media Watchdog Award, and several awards from the Society of Professional Journalists' San Diego PRO Chapter. He previously served 13 years as senior staff to the California State Legislature and as a successful political consultant. He can be reached directly at

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