Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 | There may be no agency locally that has more on its plate in coming years than the Port of San Diego. The cities that surround San Diego’s harbor and bay front appear ready to define the waterfront and cast its character and features for the coming decades.

It’ll be the port that carries this out.

No project is bigger and more ambitious than Gaylord Entertainment’s planned convention center. The project is inside the city limits of Chula Vista but on port land. The port and the city of Chula Vista decided to provide the project a more than $300 million subsidy with public funds.

That’s an extraordinary taxpayer investment in a private development. For comparison’s sake, in the current climate, it’s hard to imagine residents tolerating such a direct subsidy for a new sports stadium or other type of private development. But opposition to Gaylord’s assistance did not take hold.

Chula Vista and port representatives have cast it as an investment that will pay Chula Vista taxpayers, along with those in surrounding areas, dividends for years into the future. But it is also a substantial risk. The public should expect that such a venture would inspire the most vigilant oversight possible and that both the port and Chula Vista would be almost hyper-paranoid about the appearance of conflicts of interest or other potential embarrassments.

Unfortunately, so far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. The Port Commission is in need of an independent manager of the Gaylord project — a consulting firm that can help advise the port on the financial, planning and environmental issues that may come up as the sprawling development takes shape. As reporter Evan McLaughlin discovered in a Feb. 5 report, the port’s staff decided to recommend a firm for that job that is part owned by Gaylord itself.

This is a mistake.

While Gaylord owns a minor stake in the firm, it’s hard to imagine how it could justifiably have any control at all over protecting and managing the public’s interest in this process. The port’s foreman cannot have any ties to the company it is supposed to be overseeing. Gaylord is already set to profit immensely from this arrangement; the least it can do is tolerate the challenges of working with an independent manager.

That’s not an unreasonable request.

The selection of this consultant is not the most important of decisions that the port will make as it deals with this massive development.

It is important, however, that the port learn how to do this correctly. Not long ago, the port’s reputation for guarding against conflicts of interest was tarnished with the scandal involving former Commissioner David Malcolm. His agreement to put a private power company’s interest above that of the port and the public in his dealings racked the public’s confidence in the port’s decision making.

Now the port is preparing to act on the desire to abolish the South Bay power plant as part of yet another grand development that may include the construction of a football stadium for the San Diego Chargers. Along with the developments of Lane Field and the continued cultivation of industrial opportunities, the Port Commission’s decisions over the next year may very well be some of the most consequential in the region.

It is because of these momentous decisions on the agenda that the nomination to represent the city of San Diego on the Port Commission has become so intriguing and tense.

The port must go through these upcoming plans with the utmost of integrity — avoiding conflicts of interest and even the perceptions of collusion every step of the way.

The Port Commission does not have to choose the consultant recommended to it by staff when it meets March 13. Regardless of the merits of the group that staff feels should be the one to manage the convention center project, the firm’s association with the developer is intolerable.

In order for the San Diego region to do great things, local leaders with big ideas must first prove to residents that they will go through the sometimes tedious process of proving they are doing the best job they can in the best interest of taxpayers. To do this, officials must be willing to empanel independent overseers of their pet projects and to engage in examinations of whether certain arrangements can be considered objectionable.

Only then can they legitimately reassure us that an ambitious project can be completed without the provisional brand of impropriety that has come to define other major local undertakings.

Correction: The original version of this editorial implied that the Port Commission would have a role overseeing the Navy Broadway Complex. The port, however, will have not have any authority over the project. We regret the error.

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