PERSPECTIVE: Port District Exposes Its Underbelly in Censuring NC Commissioner
By Arturo Castañares
The San Diego Unified Port District is the most powerful local agency most San Diegans have never heard of, yet they control some of the region’s most valuable land along the Bayfront.
This week, the Port jumped into the spotlight by releasing a proposed resolution to be considered at Tuesday’s meeting which sets out to censure one of its own Commissioners.
The seven-member Board of Commissioners is made up of political appointees selected by the Mayors and City Councils of the five port cities: Three Commissioners appointed by San Diego, and one Commissioner from each city of Imperial Beach, Coronado, Chula Vista, and National City.
Together, the Port controls all of the land along San Diego’s Bayfront, including Seaport Village, the Convention Center, Bayfront hotels, the marine terminals, and the Embarcadero, as well as the Pacific Ocean coast of the City of Imperial Beach.
Established in 1962 by state law, the Unified Port District combined the previously existing San Diego Harbor Commission created in 1919 and the even older Port of National City, which at the time had more valuable port operations than San Diego.
But since then, the Port has become a political and economic powerhouse albeit the public has no idea who runs it and how they operate.
This week, the internal politics of the Port Board spilled into the public when, on Monday, the Port released its agenda for its Tuesday meeting that included a draft resolution to censure Sandy Naranjo, National City’s appointed Commissioner.
The resolution outlines vague reasons for punishing one of its Commissioners, using language like “personal violations of the Brown Act”, “breached her duty of care”, and “breached her duty of full disclosure” as justifications.
But neither Naranjo nor other Commissioners have been shown any evidence of her alleged transpasses, nor was she even notified in advance of the draft resolution until the public agenda was posted 24 hours before the proposed meeting.
Naranjo was appointed to the Port Board in January 2021 by then-National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, who lost her re-election campaign in November after being challenged by two of her Council colleagues.
An experienced labor and environmental advocate, Naranjo soon began asking tough questions of the Port Board and staff, a sure way to make yourself unwelcome in what has long been perceived as a good ol’ boys club.
No one, including Naranjo, has yet described publicly the details of what led to this very rare public rebuke of one of its own members, but no evidence has been offered either.
In July, the Port Board put its President and CEO Joe Stuyvesant on administrative leave for “undisclosed reasons” and the Board appointed its retired President to fill in for the time being, but no one explained the reasons for the turmoil, citing confidentiality required in personnel matters.
But during the closed session vote to suspend Stuyvesant and appoint an interim President, Naranjo recused herself by saying she “may be a witness to some of the events that will be discussed in closed session.”
Now, just two months later, the remaining Commissioners will consider publicly chastising one of their colleagues, remove her from their Executive Committee where she is currently the Vice-Chair, and derail her expected ascention to the Port’s Chairmanship next year.
The proposed resolution also states that she would be restricted from “speaking alone with any District employee in her scope and authority as a Commissioner,” thereby eviscerating her ability to represent the interests of National City on the Port Board.
If the Port Board takes the proposed action, they will basically be forcing the elected officials of National City to replace Naranjo in order to have a fully empowered representative on the Board.
But so far, no evidence has been disclosed to warrant the allegations made against Commissioner Naranjo and both she and the public deserve a full accounting of the details that led to this very public rebuke.
Port District Commissioners are public servants, appointed by elected officials to represent the public’s interests. The Commissioners are empowered to make decisions on important economic and social programs conducted on our valuable waterfront land held in trust for the benefit of the public.
Commissioners should be held accountable for their actions but they are also required to act with full disclosure to the public.
The moves being orchestrated against Naranjo are serious and carry a public stigma of wrongdoing even before any evidence has been presented.
The residents and voters of National City elected a Mayor and Councilmembers who in turn selected their representative to serve on the Port District. Only the City Council of National City should decide who serves on their behalf, not to have their hand forced by the other Commissioners.
Sandy Naranjo and National City deserve to have all of the details made public and to have an opportunity to confront and discuss whatever evidence may exist before the Board takes any action.
We call on the entire San Diego Unified Port Board of Commissioners to fully explain the allegations against Naranjo and to make their case to the public that actions should be taken against her.
No more hiding behind closed doors and using innuendoes that can damage someone’s credibility without the ability to properly defend against them.
The public should watch today’s 3:00 pm meeting to help ensure full transparency and accountability as one of our important government agencies exercises power granted on behalf of the people.