- Reporters Desk
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
“The worst thing would be to stand still and to look at structures of the past to support the democracy of the future,” Harbor Commissioner Robin Kramer said at the Commission’s May 2 meeting, just moments before voting to abolish democracy entirely.
Thus ended Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Harbor Commissioner’s 8-year mission to get rid of the Port Community Advisory Committee, abandoning all pretense of making sense, in the last-minute rush to get the dirty deed done.
“It’s the last act of getting rid of any vestiges of what Jim Hahn did for this waterfront,” said PCAC co-Chairwoman June Smith during the comment period. “That’s the way some of us perceive it. That may not be your motivation. It may not be correct. I’m just saying that is a perception, and I think it’s one you need to be aware of and need to deal with.”
But dealing with the community’s views didn’t seem to be a concern, given how rushed the decision-making process was, not allowing time for PCAC or any other Brown Act compliant public body to weigh in.
The rush was eerily reminiscent of the closing days of the Richard Riordan administration, when the Harbor Commission approved the China Shipping terminal without benefit of an environmental impact report—a decision that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mayor James Hahn subsequently created the PCAC in late 2001, in part to put an end to such furtive, irresponsible and costly backroom deal-making, and when local homeowner activists later succeeded in blocking the project in court with the aid of the Natural Resources Defense Council, PCAC was substantially strengthened as the vehicle for implementing core aspects of the settlement that followed in 2003.
That time-frame, starting 12 long years ago, appeared to mark the beginning of the end of the so-called “Hundred-Year War” between the Port and the community. But the hurried demise of PCAC now threatens to bring it back for an indefinite encore—this time with much slicker public relations than ever before.
As an example, praising PCAC to death was POLA’s preferred mode of assassination—using praise as a cover to misconstrue PCAC’s purpose, the more easy to bury it.
“PCAC has accomplished its mission,” said Cynthia Ruiz, the port’s point person.
Commission President Cindy Miscikowski and Vice President David Arian both echoed her approach.
But the claim was an obvious lie on at least three basic counts, which community members exposed in the limited comment time available: First, that PCAC’s mission is explicitly open-ended, and thus cannot ever be considered “accomplished.” Smith took this on directly, citing specific items from PCAC’s mission.
“’Number one: ‘Assess the impacts of port developments on harbor communities and to recommend suitable mitigation measures to the board for such impacts.’ That’s been completed? It’s gone away? We’re never going to have that again?” she asked, incredulously.
“Number two: ‘To review past, present and future environmental documents in an open public process—and I want to emphasize that. ‘To make recommendations to the board to ensure the impacts on communities have been appropriately mitigated in accordance with the law.’ That is going to go away?” she asked.
“If we still have a port, we need PCAC,” summed up Olive Reed, president of the Harbor City Neighborhood Council.
The second basis on which ‘PCAC-has-completed-its-mission’ is a lie is that part of the reason PCAC was created was to put an end to insular, anti-democratic decision-making—precisely the sort of process that was being used to get rid of PCAC.
“There was not a consultative process even in this example about what to do about PCAC,” said Diana Nave, president of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council. “Our neighborhood council for years raised concerns about the structure of PCAC and has made recommendations over the years about how we thought it should be restructured.
“…There’s never been any action on any of those recommendations…. I can’t stand up here today with a position from our neighborhood council because we did not have adequate time to weigh in on this particular recommendation that is before you today.”
Similar concerns also expressed by PCAC member Chuck Hart—who cited a litany of PCAC’s own recommendations for reforming its bylaws and functioning within the past five years, all ignored by the port—and by Reed, who asked, “Why is there such a rush to make this a done deal?” She then added, “It concerns me that perhaps the Brown Act has been violated with this issue.”
“Under the charter, neighborhood councils have certain rights and duties,” added Bob Gelfand, of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council. “One right we have is to be advised in advance. None of us were informed.”
Coastal is one of four neighborhood councils represented on PCAC.
`Third, if PCAC really had transformed the port, then an open, deliberative process would have been used to create a robust democratic successor process and/or entity in the event that PCAC really did need to be replaced. Along these lines, former port lawyer Pat Nave asked, “Why didn’t the port call and say , ‘Look, we’re all going to go to Room 522 and we’re going to hammer out what a consultative model looks like and then we’re going to come back to the board’? It could have happened. It didn’t happen.”
Nave also stressed a related point—that port staff seems oblivious to the difference between publicity and democracy.
“My real fear is that left to it’s own devices that the Port will use, staff will use an outreach model and not a consultative model,” Nave said. “We have plenty examples of where the outreach idea, of going to the community, presenting something and then coming back, and so forth, ends up in litigation, or ends up in trouble, and plenty of examples where you sit down together, work something out and you get a good model.”
With the Port’s ‘PCAC-is-so-successful-we-don’t-need-it-anymore’ narrative in tatters by the end of the public comment period, Commission President Cindy Miscikowski switched gears in her summary remarks, suddenly rediscovering PCAC’s original purpose—a first in eight years of the Villaraigosa Administration—but without also rediscovering the Harbor Commission’s own culpability in undermining it.
“PCAC was meant to be across the board–the tug-and-pull, the good debates, but having representatives from various viewpoints,” Miscikowski said, and the loss of participation, primarily by business groups, means a loss of “those other entities that should have been a part of an overall community/citizen advisory committee to this board, and that some of the give and take, and tug and pull, and maybe knock-down, drag-out fight,s would occur in the PCAC forum itself, as it would be presented to us with, then, sort of a synthesized consensus.”
However, she then noted, “The evolution of PCAC has gone away from that.”
That “evolution” did not just happen, though. In 2005, Villaraigosa’s first Harbor Commission President Daniel Freeman, refused to fill PCAC’s Harbor Commission co-chair slot, which Townsend had previously occupied, thereby sending the clear signal that PCAC’s input was not valued by the commission, and that others should not value it, either.
As Reed said in her comments, “If commissioners do not think the PCAC is an important committee to attend, why would business and other community members believe PCAC is important?”
There was nothing stopping Miscikowski from reversing Freeman’s decision when she took over and appointing a new commissioner co-chair, but she did nothing—and now she’s lamenting the predictable results with crocodile tears. By using the foreseeable results of Freeman’s controversial decision eight years ago to kill off PCAC today, Miscikowski only reinforced the widespread perception that the Villaraigosa Administration has wanted to get rid of PCAC all along.
Random Lengths asked June Smith about Miscikowski’s comments, and she replied extensively, mostly by re-emphasizing with added detail points she and others made before the commissioners, but which Miscikowski ignored—such as the fact that PCAC had been without a commissioner co-chair for eight years, and the long list of PCAC-initiated reform proposals that had been ignored.
Smith did add that in making up the scope of PCAC, Commissioner Townsend “spent many hundreds of hours interviewing people across the board… about the best composition” for PCAC and that business and labor groups had limited interest in participating from the start. She also pointed out that “Staff support was slowly withdrawn from committees,…PCAC members could no longer meet on port property; even water for meetings was withdrawn (sounds like a [Victor] Hugo novel)”
Under these conditions, Smith asked, “Why should anyone keep coming to these committees much less business and union leaders who [already] had access to staff and the Port?”
And so, it was that malign neglect provided the port its final excuse for abandoning what limited democracy James Hahn committed it to 12 years ago, bringing about a temporary, limited ceasefire in the so-called “Hundred Year War”. Whether there will be another Hundred-Year War ahead of us will be up to the new mayor to be elected shortly—that is, if the Harbor Area is even on their radar. Perhaps another seismic lawsuit will do the trick.