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Tuesday, May 19, 2009 | The San Diego City Council looks to be headed toward another contentious battle over a high-profile political appointment to the Port Commission.

So far council members have nominated three people to fill the vacancy left by Laurie Black, who resigned last month from the board of the Unified Port of San Diego because of her husband’s illness. The two leading candidates to replace Black — hotelier Bill Evans and Environmental Health Coalition Executive Director Diane Takvorian — come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and neither appears to have locked up a majority of support on the council.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald and Councilman Kevin Faulconer are backing Evans, while Councilman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Donna Frye have nominated Takvorian. Councilwoman Sherri Lightner has nominated her former campaign opponent, Marshall Merrifield.

The other three councilmen — Council President Ben Hueso and Councilmen Tony Young and Carl DeMaio — have yet to publicly state a preference or nominate someone else. They have until Thursday to submit nominations. Since they will likely decide the nominee, they are being watched closely, especially Hueso.

San Diego appoints three commissioners to the seven-member board, with the rest coming from the cities of Coronado, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and National City.

Contentious port appointments in San Diego are less the exception than the rule. In March 2007, Black lost her bid for a seat when the council decided to waive its rules on term limits and appoint retired auto dealer Steve Cushman to a third term. Last year, three lame-duck City Council members were among those who voted to appoint outgoing Council President Scott Peters to the port over the objections of Young and Frye.

The appointment to the board is particularly important because the port controls some of the most important land in the region, along the San Diego Bay. As such, it has a major hand in critical development such as potential locations for a Chargers stadium and the development of the Chula Vista bayfront.

There’s an ongoing debate about how to best use port-owned land. Some favor waterfront hotels and restaurants. Others stress the importance of a working port to support high-paying industrial jobs. Environmentalists also fret about water and air pollution stemming from port industry.

Emerald, a Democrat, acknowledges that nominating Evans, a Republican who backed her opponent in last year’s council race, is raising eyebrows. But Emerald said she wanted to reach across the aisle and thinks Evans is a smart businessman whose tourism experience could benefit the city, which is struggling with falling hotel-tax revenue.

“I felt it could be helpful to have someone on the Port Commission who understands the hospitality industry and who could bring new ideas to the table to help us fill those hotel rooms,” she said.

Evans is a longtime local businessman whose family runs several hotels, mostly around Mission Bay. He’s long been involved in local politics and on various boards, such as the Convention Center and the Tourism Marketing District, and has a long relationship with Cushman, the chair of the Port Commission and an influential local political figure.

Evans said it’s also important to protect the working port, in part because the industry provides high-paying jobs that because of Navy contracts, are somewhat immune from the recession.

“You can build a hotel in El Cajon, but you can’t build a deep-water port in El Cajon,” Evans said.

He stresses the need for the port to end its “continual arm-wrestling” with the San Diego Airport Authority and to start on a series of infrastructure improvements known as the North Embarcadero plan.

Takvorian, meanwhile, directs the Environmental Health Coalition, which advocates for public health and environmental justice issues. Much of her work has concerned the port, such as combating air pollution there that filters into neighboring communities and cleaning up toxic industrial discharges into the bay.

Takvorian said while the port isn’t short on businessmen, its members haven’t been focused on environmental issues. She credits Black and Peters with push those interests forward, but said her appointment to the port would bring more diversity and balance to the commission.

“I don’t think we’ve had someone whose interests and whose job it has been for almost 30 years to enhance environmental protection,” Takvorian said. “That perspective has never been there, and we deserve an opportunity to be at the table.”

While all the council members who haven’t chosen sides are being lobbied for the appointment, the scrutiny is most intense on Hueso, whose support is considered crucial.

Backing Takvorian would put Hueso in the same camp with some familiar allies, notably organized labor, which is a major stakeholder in Takvorian’s organization and the most prominent group supporting her nomination. But Evans is a prolific fundraiser, something that could come in handy as Hueso is running for state Assembly next year.

Hueso could also put forward a different nominee. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Takvorian acknowledged that Hueso’s public silence on the nomination so far is conspicuous.

“I guess it speaks volumes that he hasn’t endorsed me as of yet,” she said, “but there are two days to go for the nomination.”

Evans, meanwhile, said he’s unlikely to get support from Frye, whom he said told him she “strongly believes there should be female representation on the board.”

While Evans said he agrees with the need for diversity, he said the focus for this appointment should be more on experience than political considerations, given the dire economy.

Frye said she’s supporting Takvorian because of her work on environmental issues, not her gender, though she said “the fact that she also happens to be a woman is certainly helpful.” Black was the only woman on the Port Commission and Frye said she’s long “harangued” Evans about getting female representation on the Tourism and Marketing District board.

Both leading candidates could face questions about potential conflicts — Evans about his business interests, though he’s quick to point out that his company has leases with the city of San Diego, not the port. “It’s a whole different universe,” he said.

The heavy involvement of the Environmental Health Coalition in port issues could raise questions about Takvorian’s voting ability if she were appointed. Her co-nominator, Gloria, said he’s not worried, saying he’s confident Takvorian will recuse herself when appropriate and that her sustained involvement is a net positive.

Merrifield, for his part, touts his lack of endorsements as a plus, noting that he’s not been put forward as a candidate by any particular interest group such as organized labor or the hotel industry.

If appointed, Merrifield — who heads up companies specializing in lock manufacturing and commercial security hardware — said he would use his experience to lobby for federal homeland security grants for the port. He would also seek to establish so-called foreign trade zones that would appeal to importers and exporters and could siphon port business from Long Beach.

“We are perfectly positioned,” Merrifield said of San Diego’s port. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity.”

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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