Maureen O’Connor removed from Port Commission

Proponents of downtown’s budget breaking new convention center get a big boast January 1 when Maureen O’Connor is removed from the port commission at the expiration of her four-year term. O’Connor was unfailingly skeptical of the port’s ability to build the bayside monument for the promised $95 million, and when the cost estimates this year jumped to $125 million, she was the only commissioner to demand that votes be polled a second time on the issue.

In her last days on the commission, O’Connor is publicizing a new consultant’s report which, she says, shows a second cost increase to $132.7 million, and is ruminating about the possibility of important municipal programs suffering when the city is forced to operate at a deficit the completed but underoccupied center. “Voters approved the center because they were told it would be good for their neighborhoods,” O’Connor said last week. “Now they’ll see the tax revenues that could have been used on their streets and parks go to keep the convention center open.”

O’Connor never stood a chance of reappointment from a staunchly pro-convention-center city council headed by Roger Hedgecock, who defeated her in the 1983 mayor’s race. (O’Connor mistakenly received a letter last Friday from Hedgecock asking if she would like to be renominated. She sent back a note that she’d “be glad to serve,” though she knew the invitation was an oversight.) O’Connor talks of plans “to stay in public service,” but she’s vague about what forum she’ll use to critique the convention center project.

Fred Schnaubelt, the former city council allied with O’Connor on the construction cost issue, doubts O’Connor can be very effective. “She’ll talk, but once you lose your [port commissioner] title, you use ninety-five percent of your volume,” says the libertarian politician. “You just don’t have the same status,” Schnaubelt speaks from experience; as a private citizen he’s been most effective in supplying O’Connor with background information and strategy for getting the most mileage from her frequent critiques. But since he’s left the city council, his own public appearances have gone almost unnoticed. Last month, for example, he took to the podium at a port commission meeting and criticized the convention center costs. His comments went unreported in the newspapers, and he snagged a brief appearance on one television news show only because he and the television news crew coincidentally met while leaving the port building.

Schnaubelt and O’Connor both believe that O’Connor’s replacement will not crusade against cost overruns. “They [the San Diego City Council] would never appoint anyone who’s skeptical of the project,” says Schnaubelt. While none of the three possible candidates fits Schnaubelt’s description of a commissioner who would be “deaf, dumb, and blind,” to criticisms of the center’s cost, the prospective commissioners appear willing to carry out the council’s charge that project be completed.

Ralph Pesqueira, owner of El Indio restaurant, is the apparent favorite. Mike Gotch signed Pesqueira’s nominating papers, and jokingly says that Pesqueira has “got good food, so what else matters?” But Pesqueira’s political experience is limited to his role in raising money and support for Councilman Uvaldo Martinez’s election campaign, and his possible port commission appointment is secured not by his talents but by Hedgecock’s need to return a political favor to Councilman Martinez.

Pesqueira’s defeat would be caused by the unwillingness of Councilman William Jones to stick with the new Hedgecock-Gotch-Martinez-Bill Mitchell coalition, and the appointment could then go to former congressman Clair Burgener or businessman Dan Larsen. Neither is known for maverick political behavior. (Indeed, the biggest lure of a port commission seat may be the position’s prestige and fringe benefits. Martinez’s aide Rudy Murillo says that “if you want to see the world, you don’t join the Navy, you get appointed to the port commission,” a reference to the frequent travel opportunities, including last month’s expense-paid tour of shipping facilities in China and Japan.)

Commissioner Ben Cohen, Coronado’s representative, remains the only skeptical voice on the port panel. Cohen, who has sided with O’Connor in criticizing cost overruns, is scheduled to resign in January, and the Coronado City Council has already chosen his replacement. But Coronado’s politicians assented to Cohen’s request that he be allowed to continue serving on the Commission at least through April, and possibly through November, as the convention center debate enters its most crucial period.

Financier M. Larry Lawrence is also hurt by O’Connor’s January departure from the port commission. Lawrence, wealthy owner of the Hotel Del Coronado, had hoped to build a $28.5 million bayfront resort on port district property at the foot of the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, but last week the commissioner instead chose another development firm. O’Connor was unable to sway a majority of the commissioners with her arguments that the winning project has perhaps promised the port district more lease revenues than it could deliver, and thus the commissioners should look more closely at the other proposals, including Lawrence’s.

The feisty Lawrence didn’t depend solely upon O’Connor’s skepticism of the eventual winner in his efforts for a favorable hearing. While port district rules prohibited Lawrence from directly lobbying commissioners, the millionaire developer had some good contacts working for him. A week before the commissioner’s vote, Union Tribune executive Richard Tullar wrote a widely distributed letter urging selection of Lawrence’s project, and La Jolla developer Harry Summers sent port commissioners a mailgram favoring the Lawrence proposal. Coronado’s chamber of commerce endorsed Lawrence’s plan with a letter to the commissioners. The weekly Coronado Journal was an unexpected ally, Lawrence has frequently complained that the paper’s editors are biased against him, but the Journal strongly supported him on the resort project, and Lawrence made sure that copies of the paper’s comments were circulated to decision makers.

In the end, though, the commission majority didn’t listen to Lawrence and his supporters, or to O’Connor and Commissioner Lou Wolfsheimer’s concerns that the development proposed by the Greenway, Brewer, Newton group was overly optimistic about lease revenues. The commissioners agreed with the Coronado City Council’s earlier decision that the Greenway proposal was the best choice, and Lawrence says he never had a chance of turning the Coronado council in his favor. Disagreements between Lawrence and the Coronado politicians are legend; currently they are fighting over the city’s demand that the hotel remove a temporary rock jetty designed to protect the hotel beach from storm damage. “I don’t think the city would have picked our proposal if we were the only one,” Lawrence complained last week.

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