Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007 | As the San Diego City Council struggles to name a new port commissioner, a deeper debate is heating up: whether its current appointee is forbidden by city policy from serving again.

The term-limit question has highlighted the ongoing debate over filling one of the city of San Diego’s three seats on the five-city board, as longtime commissioner Stephen Cushman seeks reappointment despite arguments that the limits bar him from holding the post beyond his current 8-year stint.

The issue has generated some confusion about the position, as individuals watching the appointment differ on the enforceability of the city’s term-limit policy. Meanwhile, the city’s Human Relations Commission has called for the council to abide by the restriction in an effort to stimulate diversity on the board, and Cushman’s competition for the port slot has sought consultation from an attorney who assured her that the policy exists.

“We feel that this action, if carried out, will set a precedent that will destroy the orderly transition of this and all City Commissioners and Boards, and implies that in a city, populated by 1.3 million residents, only the voices of a few are relevant and important,” the Human Relations Commission stated in a memo Friday.

The legislation that created the Unified Port of San Diego allows each of the five San Diego Bay area member cities to use its own rules with regard to term limits. While Imperial Beach, for example, allowed one commissioner to serve for 17 years, San Diego has traditionally capped its representatives’ service to 8 years.

But Cushman’s supporters in the labor, environmental and business communities, who have rallied to his aid by lobbying officials for his reappointment, say the policy is flexible. Adopted by the City Council in 1984, the council policy serves only as a philosophy, and not as a binding law, they said.

“It is merely a preference that people only serve two terms,” San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council political director Lorena Gonzalez said.

Mayor Jerry Sanders and Council President Scott Peters have both couched their opposition to Cushman’s reappointment as a stance against breaking term limits, as has another visible opinion leader, the editorial page of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Eight years is enough for me,” said Peters, noting that the city’s elected officials are restricted to two elected terms. Earlier this month, Peters and Councilman Jim Madaffer nominated political consultant Laurie Black to fill the opening.

However, Cushman’s backers note that several past city delegates to the commission have served for longer than two terms, and that the roster of city boards and commissions is rife with appointees whose service has eclipsed 8 years.

According to port records, four city of San Diego commissioners have served longer than 8 years. Three of the four came after the 1984 policy was approved:

  • Patricia McQuater served from December 1994 to April 2003. Before being appointed to the commission twice, McQuater filled out the remainder of another city of San Diego commissioner’s term.
  • William Rick served from February 1981 to February 1990. The council waived its policy in 1989 in order to allow Rick to serve on the commission until the San Diego Convention Center was completed.
  • Lou Wolfsheimer served from February 1979 to February 1990. The council elected in 1986 to waive the term limit. Wolfsheimer recalled in an interview Monday that the extension of his tenure allowed him to complete the port’s work in a legal dispute with hotelier Doug Manchester.
  • Dudley Williams served between March 1970 and January 1979, before the policy was in place.

Despite the policy, appointees have also served for more than the 8 years on boards such as the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., the Qualcomm Stadium Advisory Board, and the Park and Recreation Board, according to the City Clerk’s Office.

Black said she informally spoke with an attorney who told her that the council must recognize the policy, even though this could amount simply to the formality of an extra vote.

“It is more than just a tradition,” she said.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre will likely release a legal opinion on the issue this week, spokeswoman Maria Velasquez said. Aguirre’s office had preliminarily advised in November that the council was not barred from appointing to Cushman from a third term.

A similar restriction is found in the City Charter, which includes a more rigid two-term limit for city-created boards and commissions. While the charter restriction could only be amended with a vote of the San Diego public, Aguirre noted that the Port Commission is a state panel, not a city one, and therefore not subject to that law.

Still, Aguirre said in an interview that the council would have to formally declare why it would bend its policy for Cushman before reappointing him to a third term. “That judgment would have to occur in the overall context that a two-term limit is the predominating rule,” he said. “There has to be a principled discussion before that can happen.”

Cushman’s allies have urged for his reappointment by claiming that he has built up the trust of several diverse, and often competing, constituencies at the port.

“It isn’t a matter of another nominee not being qualified, it’s really a matter of relationships with the Working Waterfront businesses and the port commission staff that would take many months, if not longer, for someone else to recreate,” said Mark Fabiani, special counsel to the San Diego Chargers. The football club is currently weighing the prospects of locating a stadium to port-controlled land in National City or Chula Vista.

The Human Relations Commission disagrees. The panel joined the debate last week when it unanimously voted to oppose Cushman’s reappointment. Nicole Murray Ramirez, the commission’s chairman, said the term limits allow a higher turnover of perspectives, thereby allowing a bigger variety of ideas and people make their way through the boards that advise and monitor the city government.

“When my 8 years is up, they’re up,” Ramirez said. “Then another person with another voice from another community can follow me.”

A hearing on the appointment is expected to come in late February, but a specific date has not been set, Peters’ spokeswoman Pam Hardy said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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