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Saturday, June 9, 2007 | With chipper comments and wide smiles, the San Diego City Council swiftly appointed Laurie Black to the Port Commission on Tuesday.
That cheery tone was much different than the tense hearing in March. Then, the last time the council was asked to fill one of San Diego’s three seats on the five-city commission, Black was left empty-handed.
She fell one vote short of securing the commissionership in March when the council spurned tradition and reappointed Stephen Cushman to a third term at the Unified Port of San Diego. The hearing was preceded by aggressive self-promotions by both nominees and featured hours of emotional testimony. It finally ended in an awkward 4-4 tie vote that ultimately tipped in Cushman’s direction when a Black supporter sided with the incumbent.
Still, Black requested to be nominated again, even though she described the March hearing as appalling and overtly political. In an interview on the North Embarcadero, where she aims to help the port remake the city’s waterfront, she told voiceofsandiego.org why.
“She’s the reason I’m doing this,” Black said of her daughter, Madeline, who is along her side during the interview. “I want her to have clean water and a place to listen to some rock ‘n’ roll. I’m a believer in bringing people to the waterfront that live here. Because these guys (the tourists who are passing through our discussion near the Star of India) are still going to keep coming. You know what I mean?”
In the discussion, Black — a local consultant who has served as the president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership and chief of staff to former Rep. Lynn Schenk — spoke about her philosophy as San Diego’s newest port commissioner — and the lengths she went to get her there.
Your appointment this week appeared to be a pretty stark difference with the March appointment, where you narrowly lost in a process that looked to be as contentious as a political campaign.
I didn’t run a campaign. It was an appointed office. I certainly sent out e-mails and received phone calls for supporters to come (to the council hearing). I never saw it as an election.
That being said, I learned that I don’t have the constitution for being a candidate. You’re supposed to never say “never,” but I don’t think so … at least for the next three decades.
What kind of relationship do you expect to have with Cushman after such a contentious debate?
I think we’ll be fine. I think Mr. Cushman … and all of the commissioners … are going to be surprised that what I do professionally is pretty much strategic communications and bringing people together to the same table.
I think they’ll also be surprised at how much I listen. I’m pretty policy-driven … I understand the role of staff in terms of implementation of visions and the role of a commissioner to set policy and set vision.
Readers Fire Away
What about the organized labor and environmental communities that pushed so hard for Cushman’s reappointment?
It wasn’t about me. I was relieved after the hearing, because it was pretty painful. Especially since I had worked with those people that filled the council chambers — frankly, way longer than Mr. Cushman ever had. That’s what made me believe that it wasn’t about me. It was political, and I just didn’t take it personally.
Were you frustrated?
Absolutely, I was frustrated. I felt [Cushman] has his eight years. Many others have left after eight years.
I told [San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Jerry] Butkiewicz afterwards that I got into this appointment process after reading [voiceofsandiego.org’s] editorial … that asked the question, “Isn’t there anybody else?”
So yeah, I was frustrated. But they all support me now. There’s a pile of letters.
Is there a certain policy area that you want attack right away when you get to the Port Commission?
My passion has been right where we’re standing … the waterfront.
I certainly am interested in the North Embarcadero issue. But what I read in your publication and see in the paper, National City looks kind of interesting. I don’t recall in a really long time ever seeing a city manager of National City be such an advocate, so I’m kind of looking forward to hearing a little about what [National City officials] are thinking about in their mind.
A plan for the North Embarcadero has been laid out for more than a decade. Do you like the plan, or does it need revising?
I like the plan. By the time I became the president of the Downtown Partnership … I was very involved in setting up the South Embarcadero guidelines and then very active in advocating for the North Embarcadero … I’ve been watching it ever since.
Former state Sen. Steve Peace and county Supervisor Ron Roberts issued their vision for the waterfront in January. Some people were impressed, and others say they are a late to the game because of the many other plans that are in place. What do you think?
I went to the press conference. It didn’t seem like any kind of official plan that any particular municipality was putting out. I haven’t talked to Ron or Steve. But there are parts of it I like about it.
The one part I like is the idea that … Lane Field relates to Navy Broadway Complex, and that relates to a cruise ship terminal. I haven’t been on the port, so I don’t know exactly what meetings have taken place. I don’t have that kind of information.
But what I’ve said in the past with the “wayfinding signs” (where three different government agencies post their own directions all along the North Embarcadero, sometimes just feet from each other). That (dispute) was about a little 10-inch-by-15-inch sign, it’s a whole other thing to build potentially iconic buildings or not-iconic buildings. I love green space, so I’m always going to be an advocate of adding green.
But there are certain laws about tidelands properties … those are really run by the state. So it needs to be about maritime, it needs to be about fishing, it’s got to be about jobs, but it’s also an interpretation about that law. So it will be interesting to learn how people’s interpretation of that law directs visions or their perceptions.
What will be your philosophy as a port commissioner? Are you a representative of the city of San Diego first and a trustee of a state agency second, or the other way around?
I really feel strongly that I’m a delegate of the city of San Diego. I keep hearing from people who say, “Well, you’ll soon go in the fold and you’ll become a part of whatever.” But I see myself as being very accountable to the city of San Diego.
I will attend meetings at the city of San Diego, City Council meetings. I have a very good relationship with Kevin Faulconer, with Toni Atkins and Mr. (Scott) Peters. I actually spoke with the mayor this last time about me serving on the port.
But I believe in balance. There’s got to be a balance between what’s happening here economically and what’s happening here in this city socially.
I probably don’t have enough information here, but I would not at this point … have supported eliminating all the concerts on the bay. People from Coronado probably don’t want to hear that.
I’m a believer in small businesses, I own a small business, I’m an advocate for small businesses, so to me bringing 150,000 people to the waterfront during the summer for concerts seemed like a great thing. That it was rattling wine glasses three hours of the day … the question becomes, do you send them earplugs?
The redevelopment of the Mission Hills Shopping Center that was undertaken by you and your husband was met with much scrutiny by a vocal group of residents. As a port commissioner, you’re going to be receiving a lot of input from similar groups who may be making criticism on behalf of the “public interest.” Did the experience in Mission Hills shape your impression of activist groups?
Not at all. The only thing I want in public comment is for the truth to be heard. And I also want to be in the game at the beginning.
What happened there was my husband bought a piece of property and, immediately, we started going out into the community. We lived there (in Mission Hills) and we walked around, we went to every meeting, we went to uptown, went to [Save Our Heritage Organization], the residents, the garden club, you name it. And every month too.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have council support either … but I love public comment. It’s what I do.
At your hearing, Councilman Jim Madaffer questioned out loud whether the Port District had outlived its usefulness. Should the city of San Diego be the end-all, be-all arbiter of its waterfront? What do you think?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I’m not quite sure yet.
There is a possibility that a Chargers stadium winds up on the port’s tidelands in Chula Vista. What are your thoughts?
The first thing I’ll tell you about the Chargers is that if the Chargers left San Diego I’d be kicked out of my house. We have season tickets …
Whatever it takes to try and bring the Chargers, let’s try to figure it out. Having been involved in Petco Park so closely back in ’97 and ’98 … nobody could have predicted that the amount of economic development to over $2 billion. When the theme came about for the Prop. C campaign, it was that “redevelopment was for everyone,” it was “more than a ballpark.” I think that’s probably what the Chargers are looking for. It’s got to be more than a ballpark, more than a stadium.
There are so many competing interests at the port, be it the maritime industries and their workers, the cruise ships, the hoteliers, the environmentalists. Do you suspect that some of them have too much influence?
I don’t know. See me in a year.