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Even with the polluted water last week, beach conditions have been calm in Imperial Beach with looping hollow lefts off the North Side of the pier, and a hardcore group of groms and early risers taking advantage of the best south swell of the season. Despite the idyllic conditions on the beach, things are far from serene at the Imperial Beach City Hall, where Mayor Jim Janney and the City Council have ignored the growing community concern over the lack of public involvement in the planning of large capital improvement projects. On Sept. 19, the City Council approved a policy banning council members from “attending city sponsored public workshops,” in a move that appears to violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. (What is the punishment for a council member who violates the ban — a waterboarding session at Ye Olde Plank Inn?)

The bizarre ban on council members meeting with the public was most likely influenced by a July 11 meeting in which more than 25 residents met with Janney and City Manager Gary Brown, to discuss the $56 million dollar dredging project proposed by the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At the meeting concerns were raised by longtime residents, many with professional and technical expertise in coastal engineering, about the viability of the project, the incompetence of the corps, and the enormous expenditure of public funds on what is a public subsidy for wealthy beachfront property owners. Meeting participants became alarmed when Janney informed them that the city of Imperial Beach might have to use redevelopment funds to provide up to over $1 million in required local matching funds for the project.

After the meeting, Janney promised to hold a full public hearing on the dredging project. Unfortunately, after being pressed for a date for the forum, the Mayor backed away from his commitment. In a August 27th letter he stated that a public hearing would only “be held after funding had been granted to carry out the project” and only if he believes it is necessary to be “open to suggest to the Council” that we have a hearing. Janney also wrote that it is a “waste of the community and City Council’s time” to hold a public hearing (the last one was held in 2002) on the most expensive project in the history of Imperial Beach. Within a month of his letter had had banned any council involvement in public workshops. So much for democracy in Imperial Beach.

Generally an attempt is made by elected officials to listen to the concerns of residents regarding expensive taxpayer-funded projects prior to having them approved. Instead Mayor Janney will solicit public input on the sand project only after the Army Corps and the lobbying firm of Marlowe & Company (who according to the Center for Responsive Politics earned close to $1.6 million last year from Imperial Beach and other cities) design and approve the project themselves. More recently, City Manager Gary Brown promising to spend an additional $31,000 on a new SANDAG study for a proposed $22 million dollar sand countywide sand replenishment project.

It is unfortunate that Mayor Janney and the City Council trust the Army Corps to carry out a viable cost-effective project in Imperial Beach. Surf City, New Jersey, learned the hard way about the trustworthiness of the federal government’s most incompetent agency. The corps carried out a $71 million dredging project in Surf City that dumped more than 1,100 WWI-era explosives on the beach. As a result Surf City had to close its beach for three months over the spring to remove them. Despite the cleanup effort, more than a dozen explosives were found in the sand over the summer. The corps has proposed closing Surf City’s beach over the winter to search for additional explosives. As a final insult, the Army Corps billed Surf City for the cost of removing the ordnance (the city has refused to pay). Mayor Janney and the City Council are unconcerned that the corps has proposed dredging in an area that according to the city of Imperial Beach’s own website was used as a WWI bombing and gunnery range.

The blind support for the seriously flawed and costly dredging project is an excellent example of how Mayor Janney and the City Council no longer consider the residents of Imperial Beach to be their primary constituents. Instead the Mayor and Council members appear to be concerned first with appeasing the interests of city staff, government agencies and private lobbying firms who have little interest in the future of our town. The council’s disregard for the public is highlighted best by the expenditure of $415,000 to remodel the council chambers with flat-screen TVs while delaying a popular initiative to provide a skateboard park for Imperial Beach’s growing population of at-risk and low-income children that would be an ideal and well-justified use of redevelopment funds.

The top priority of Mayor Janney and the Council should be to build a healthy and sustainable city that reflects the diversity of Imperial Beach. For now, under the leadership of Janney and the City Council, our elected officials have retreated into a bunker and cut themselves off from the voters who elected them. It is time to for the mayor and council to return to the real world and embrace the needs, concerns and dreams of the people who make Imperial Beach such a cool place to live.

— SERGE DEDINA

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