San Diego Few legislators have had as great an impact on San Diego as former state senator James R. Mills. Recently, in a Coronado café, he sat down for an interview.
Today there is a proposal to the City of San Diego by John Moores's development company to build a Ballpark Village, to build condo towers and retail and other uses. And the port apparently has concerns because of the project's proximity to the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. If these condos go up, the residents may complain about activity at the marine terminal. What do you think about that?
John Moores has hired Steve Peace. Steve Peace is not cheap. Steve Peace costs a lot of money.
So far John Moores has gotten everything he wanted from the City of San Diego. There's nothing that he's asked for from the city council of San Diego that he hasn't gotten. The cost to the City of San Diego has been enormous. What is he after here? Is he really concerned that people who have bought condominiums in this project of his, or have bought space in this project of his, are in the future going to complain about traffic being moved from the Tenth Avenue terminal? Well, he might be. But I don't think that's a reason to spend a lot of money on Steve Peace. I think a reason to spend a lot of money on Steve Peace is that John Moores presently owns the city council of San Diego. He does not own the Port District. He wants to own the Port District.
Why does he want to own the Port District? I think what he's after is the space of the Tenth Avenue terminal. Seems to me that what makes sense for him to be spending so much money on is that if he can get his hands on the Tenth Avenue terminal space, he could build a few billion dollars' worth of condos there.
There have been reports that Steve Peace has been hired to either decouple the city from the Port District or disband the Port District.
That comes under the heading of common knowledge.
What's your prognosis?
My prognosis is as people figure out what John Moores is up to that he will fail. I am told that Steve Peace is now going from one member of the legislation to another trying to find the author for the bill. It seems to me that members of the legislature from San Diego County will not be able to go along with what appears to be a political power grab on the part of John Moores.
What are your thoughts on the proposed downtown library?
The siting of the library downtown and the determination to build a library downtown right next to all this property that the City of San Diego has given to John Moores at bargain prices -- it's done because John Moores wants it that way. That's why it's being put there. That's not a good place for a library!
Why would John Moores want it down there?
Because having it there means that the property immediately adjacent, which he's planning to develop, he can say, "The library's right here next door." It'll add value to the property that he was given at bargain rates by the city, which is another scam. The library's a scam from the beginning.
So you think the main library shouldn't be built downtown?
I think there is no need for a major library structure downtown. It seems to me that the present library could be repaired and serve as a downtown branch. With the City of San Diego in the financial shape it's in, they should look for some cheap place to put the library's headquarters functions; that is, storage of books, repair of books, continuing all of the electronic functions. Because nowadays, in the age of computers and electronics, these are the most important of library functions. There's no reason to put these things downtown. A cheap warehouse someplace else would work fine, as far as the headquarters functions are concerned.
What about the iconic aspects of having the monument to knowledge and learning?
I think it isn't worth the money.
So why do you think...
Also, this whole thing with Rob Wellington Quigley has been scandalous from the start. Rob Wellington Quigley was retained to design a library at 12th and C Street. He designed a library that was too expensive to build, so they decided not to build it.
Then Rob Wellington Quigley was retained to design a library on the property at Great America Plaza [now One America Plaza], the north half of that property. He designed a library that was much too expensive to build, so the city council decided not to build it. Then the decision was made to build a library down next to the property that was being conveyed to John Moores. And the mayor, Susan Golding, said, "We will have an international competition and invite designers, architects from all over the world to compete." And they had competition from notable architects from all over the world, and one was chosen by the board that had been given this responsibility. And Susan Golding said, "Oh, we don't need to hire somebody from out of town. We can have Rob Wellington Quigley do it."
Why is that?
Because the reason she did everything.
She was a corrupt mayor.
How was she corrupt by urging that Rob Wellington Quigley design her library? How would that be corrupt?
I don't know. But I know that the whole process stank. What did she get from Rob Wellington Quigley, or what did she get from somebody for that? I don't know. What was it about Rob Wellington Quigley that caused her to hire him three times after a body which had been constituted to choose an architect chose somebody else with an international reputation, and the mayor said, "No, we won't do that now, will we? We'll have Rob Wellington Quigley do that." That smells to high heaven.
Do you think that the public should play a role in building stadiums and ballparks?
I know what she [Susan Golding] got for the sweetheart deal with Alex Spanos. He became the chair of the financial committee for her campaign for U.S. Senate. I think that the public will be sold a bill of goods. I think the public will be given a program that they will vote for which will be of enormous benefit to Alex Spanos.
Do you think it's inappropriate for tax dollars to be used for stadiums? Qualcomm initially was built with taxpayers' dollars after a public vote. Was that inappropriate?
Yes, that was inappropriate. I think that San Francisco showed the right way.
Because their baseball park was almost all privately financed?
The proponents argue that the redevelopment being spurred by the ballpark will more than cover the ballpark's cost. Do you think that's inaccurate?
I think it's false.
What about the convention center that the port and the city built on port tidelands? Do you think that's an appropriate subsidy?
Well, I don't think it's worked out very well. The people of San Diego were asked to vote for that, and they did. And they were given the understanding that it was going to create a great deal more of convention activity than it has. Because there's a lot of competition for convention business.
Do you have any thoughts on the pension underfunding and the current financial crisis that the city's going through? This seems to be happening in other municipalities, counties, and states, including California. Why does this occur?
I think some people ought to go to jail, wherever it's happened.
Meaning the elected officials, the union officials?
Yeah, certainly the union officials and probably some of the elected officials. This is criminal conduct on a major scale. This isn't small-time fraud; this is really big stuff!
Why do you think this has happened in the last few years as opposed to in the past? What's changed in the political dynamic in this country and the state to make this happen?
More people have been taking the easy way out. I was on the pension board for quite a long time on San Diego Transit. I'm happy to say that while I was there the fund was sound. And it doesn't take a lot of common sense to keep a pension fund sound.
Why wasn't it a problem in the past? Why all of a sudden did it start to turn up on a wide scale? It started to turn up on a wide scale because various politicians figured, "Oh, these people can help me politically."
Do you think elected officials have the skills and wherewithal to make these kinds of financial decisions?
I think there's been a state of decline in the quality of elected officials.
And why's that?
Various reasons. At the state level it's clearly term limits. Term limits [are] catastrophic. When people voted for term limits, people said, "We want to be governed by ignoramuses. We want to be governed by people who don't know what they're doing."
And you think that's been the major factor in the lessening of quality of elected officials?
Yeah, I think it has. You have term limits on the San Diego City Council. In times past, I think when you had people who had been around for ten years on the council and had begun to understand some of the issues, there was somebody there to say, "No, we shouldn't do that." Nowadays people on the state level, on the city level have no institutional memory; they don't know why things are the way they are.
The voters move them around, recycle them to other offices?
Yeah. The problem with Dick Murphy, obviously, from the start, was that he simply was not up to doing the job. He was not competent to be mayor of San Diego.
He was a Harvard MBA.
Yeah, I know.
Does educational background help with someone's view of these financial challenges?
Apparently not. I never had the feeling Dick Murphy understood -- watching him -- that he knew what he was doing. I served with him; he was on the MTDB board. I served with him, and he always gave the impression that he was so much more intelligent than anybody else there that we were hardly worth talking to.
And was that a misimpression?
I would say that it was.
Do you think either Jerry Sanders or Donna Frye can get the City of San Diego out of this financial mess?
It remains to be seen.
You're such a politician! [Laughs.]
I have no idea. I thought Dick Murphy was capable of being mayor of San Diego. I supported him against Roberts, which was the right thing to do when it was all said and done! [Laughs.]
But Ron maybe has more financial expertise?
I think Ron...yeah...I think Ron probably understood the issues better. But Ron had...his problems are all a matter of personal relationships. Ron upset people when he didn't need to.
Give a little background on why you pursued legislation to create the Port District. What was the reasoning behind it?
The Port of San Diego was created by legislation, and it was carried by state Senator Hugo Fisher and me in 1962. We did it in response to a request on the part of the director of the Harbor Department of San Diego. His name was John Bate.
John Bate had pioneered the development of additional maritime traffic for San Diego by developing the plan for the Tenth Avenue terminal and then persuading the city council to put on the ballot a bond issue to build the Tenth Avenue terminal. John wanted to expand the Port of San Diego's capacity to handle cargo, and the only place to do that was the waterfront of National City. But National City did not have the resources to build anything on the waterfront. The measure required of the San Diego Port to secure bonds to develop a freight terminal on the waterfront in National City.
[John Bate] came to Hugo Fisher and to me separately and asked us to introduce legislation which would provide for the creation of the San Diego Unified Port District. We carried that legislation, and it was adopted in 1962 and signed into law by Pat Brown as governor.
The Port District Act said that the district would be created by a favorable vote from the people in the cities on San Diego Bay, because the tidelands of the state had been conveyed to each of the cities within their city limits, and to transfer those tidelands to the Port District would require a vote under the terms of the act. The vote was an inside and outside vote; that is to say, it had to be favorably voted on by the people within the city of San Diego and within the other four cities. That was on the ballot in 1962, and it was approved.
Why was it in the best interest of San Diego to join with the other smaller cities?
The City of San Diego opposed the creation of the Port District. So did most of the other cities. They did not want to give up control of their tidelands. The idea of doing this in order to develop maritime freight appealed to the voters. And the voters voted to create this additional district in spite of the opposition of the cities.
Why was this good?
It was good because it was necessary in order to develop the tidelands of National City to build that terminal -- a major terminal. The effect of this was to greatly expand the capacity of the Port of San Diego to handle maritime freight. So today, a major part of the maritime freight handled by the Port of San Diego is automobiles, which move in and out of the National City terminal.
Do you think that the cities have benefited?
Clearly the cities have benefited greatly. The City of Coronado benefited because that large park, which is just north of the bridge, was created by the Port District on tidelands. What had been there before was a slum. It was a slum of housing erected by the United States government to house defense employees and armed servicemen during the Second World War.
The City of Chula Vista benefited greatly because it has a really splendid marina, which was built by the Port District, and this was of enormous benefit to Chula Vista and its tax base. All those boats there are a source of income for the City of Chula Vista.
The City of National City got a major cargo-handling terminal and all of the revenue -- tax revenue -- that comes from it, and, also, at present, a marina is being built in the tidelands of National City.
And how about Imperial Beach?
Imperial Beach has just gotten the income from it. Imperial Beach has been very happy with getting the income.
What about the "equity issue" that's raised by some of the cities, especially the City of San Diego, that the revenues generated, for instance, by the City of San Diego are disproportionately spread around the bay?
Well, I do think there's a good deal of truth to it. But the question then becomes, are these improvements that have been made, are they of benefit to the general area? They clearly are. That is, the park in Coronado is used by people all over the San Diego metropolitan area. The people who will have boats at the National City Marina, and the people who do have boats at the Chula Vista Marina are not all residents of National City and Chula Vista.
Jack McGrory, when he was city manager, often talked about decoupling the city from the Port District so he could have sole control of those revenues.
What Jack McGrory was interested in, and what the City of San Diego is interested in, is not in correcting that imbalance. What they're interested in is laying hands on the income of the Port District to use for other purposes.
Presently the requirements of the law and the practices -- the policies -- of the Port District provide that the money that comes in is used for Port District purposes, which include maritime traffic, fisheries, tourism. What the City of San Diego wants, and what other cities want, is to take that money and use it for their pet projects. They don't like to see the money expended to improve the operations of the port. Presently what's needed more sorely than anything else is dredging to allow larger ships to come here.
Yes. The City of San Diego would much rather use that money -- the members of the council would much rather use that money for their purposes than have it used to dredge the harbor for cargo ships.
So the question becomes -- one question becomes whether the Port District should continue in existence to promote maritime traffic and tourism and fisheries and so forth, or whether the various cities should be able to take this money and use it for their purposes.
And what do you think?
I think it's being well spent presently. I think it's being spent in the interest of the area. I think that no matter how much money you give to the cities, they'll find ways to spend it.
Today, as you know, the city is facing maybe the worst fiscal crisis in its history, and I would assume the opportunity to decouple those tidelands, or dismantle the port, and let the city have control of those tidelands could be very positive from the city council's perspective.
The city council has never changed, and the mayor has never changed, one mayor to another in San Diego. They have always wanted the income of the Port District.
Given the current financial threat and also cutbacks from the state to National City, Chula Vista, and Coronado, wouldn't it be in the interest of these cities to support legislation to decouple from the port?
The city councils, all of them undoubtedly, would say yes for the same reasons that they opposed the creation of the Port District.
And why would the legislators oppose that at this point?
It is never appropriate to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution. Members of the legislature in the past have been sympathetic to the idea that the Port of San Diego was an important part of the economy of Southern California, particularly now, because the Port of Los Angeles -- which is by far the busiest port on the West Coast -- is overloaded. They are turning away ships. Some of those ships are coming here. Some of those ships can't come here because they're too big. Dredging is needed to handle them.
When David Malcolm was chair of the port, he said that he thought dredging and having more cargo ships -- "these big, ugly, rusting cargo ships" -- might be counter to tourism.
As far as ships being a deterrent to tourism, the opposite is true. People enjoy eating at the Bay Beach Cafe in Coronado and looking across at the ships tied up at the Tenth Avenue terminal.
Imperial Beach continues to be the poor stepchild of the Port District and has not generated much income. The port expanded control a few years back to include the Imperial Beach beachfront. How did that come about and is that appropriate?
[Imperial Beach] wanted money for [beachfront services]; that's how they thought they could get it. That's how they did get it. It was to give Imperial Beach money.
And why would the other port cities do that?
Because Imperial Beach had a vote on the board. The way the board is made up, there are four members from the four South Bay cities and three from the City of San Diego. So if the four South Bay cities get together on anything, they can get whatever they want, which probably was a flaw in drafting the measure.
If the composition of the board was flawed, how ideally do you think it should be constituted?
Four and four. I think it should have been four members from South Bay and four from the City of San Diego.
I see. Sounds like stalemates are possible with that.
It means you'd have to [create] consensus to take important actions.
You mentioned that the port tidelands are supposed to be used for maritime, tourism, and so forth.
The port spent $21 million to purchase a parking lot off of port tidelands, which is being used by the ballpark project. The rationale was that it would be overflow for the convention center parking. [This property was recently conveyed to the city's redevelopment agency.] Is it appropriate for the port to get involved outside of the tidelands?
I thought it was stretching the point. If they can come up with some justification, this is a precedent that might result in similar actions. I don't think that anyone -- any reasonable person -- thought that that parking was being provided for the convention center.
Why would the other port cities support something that was clearly a project of the City of San Diego and would not benefit the Port District?
I don't know. I don't think anybody knows the answer to that question except the people who were involved.
Just going back to the process for a second. If a city wanted to disband the port, or get out of the port, would it require legislation? Would it require a vote of the port cities?
It would clearly require legislation. The Port District was created by a vote, and I assume that a vote would at least be appropriate before any city could withdraw.
Would a vote be mandated?
No, not necessarily.
So in theory, could the state legislature amend the legislation to allow a port city to withdraw or for the port to disband?
You'd have to ask a better lawyer than I for an answer. I'm not a lawyer. But you should recall that Steve Peace put in a bill in effect to take the airport away from the Port District, although the voters in San Diego had voted to create the Port District and to have the Port District to take over the municipal airport.
Senator Peace repeatedly has said that the port was created because the Harbor Department of the City of San Diego asked the state legislature for money to cover the deficit of its operation. There's no truth whatsoever to those statements, which he is on record as making, because the Port District of San Diego was not operating in a deficit; it was operating at a profit.
Specifically, he said that this [port legislation] was wanted by the Harbor Department of San Diego in order to take advantage of the revenue coming in from the tidelands in National City. That's exactly what he said -- and at that time there were no revenues from the tidelands in National City because the facility to handle cargo had not been built there. And whether Steve Peace dreamed this up or whether he just lied about it is a matter of question.
Peace sponsored legislation that was going to combine the various regional transportation agencies: Metropolitan Transit Development Board, North County Transit District, and SANDAG, as well as the Port District, which then owned the airport. What do you think of Peace's approach to combine these regional entities?
It was an ego trip, pure and simple. He started off by saying that one of the main reasons that it was necessary to create such an agency was that SANDAG must be abolished because SANDAG is so ineffective. In the final event, he carried a [different] bill that increased SANDAG's authority, because what was important to him was carrying a bill.
He wanted a bill with his name on it. Anything that he could get passed that had his name on it was what he wanted. So he started off by saying it's important to abolish SANDAG, and he ended up with a bill that augmented SANDAG's authority. And it was a joke.
So, notwithstanding the ego trip, was there any merit to the concept of combining these various regional transportation agencies and the airport?
No. What has taken place as a result of folding MTBD and North County Transit into SANDAG is that the management of SANDAG is clearly dedicated now to absorbing those organizations and is clearly dedicated to trying to make them fail in order to absorb them. Gary Gallegos [director of SANDAG] wants to make the transit operations look as bad as he can.
There are other considerations. They were supposed to be working for the improvement of transit. Those are all being shoveled aside. They are borrowing money for highway projects, including some things that are called transit projects -- HOV [freeway high-occupancy vehicle] lanes. They aren't borrowing any money to deal with some of the things that are really needed for transit.
It's turned out extremely badly, and it was bound to. We had an operation as far as transit was concerned that was working quite well, and Steve Peace screwed it up totally. It is really screwed up, and everybody who's involved will tell you. Even the [staff] people with SANDAG will tell you it's all screwed up.
What about the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority?
The new airport authority was created at a cost to the public of millions of dollars every year, and they have those revenues now.
Steve Peace did not propose to create the airport authority until after the Unified Port District board [initiated] looking to build another airfield elsewhere. Steve Peace went down and raved all afternoon and said they had no authority to do that. Well, they certainly did have the authority to do that because Hugo Fisher and I had put it into the legislation in '62, that they had the authority to expand airport operations off tidelands if that seemed to be appropriate.
[Peace] ranted and raved by all accounts and then introduced a bill to take that authority away from them. And what people need to consider was that he wanted to take the authority away from the Unified Port District because the Unified Port District was proposing to look at a new airport.
[Peace] presented [the creation of the airport authority] to the editorial board at the San Diego Union-Tribune as a step toward building a new airport, and it wasn't. It was created as a way to block the Unified Port District from doing that.
Do you think that the makeup of the airport authority will constrain its ability to site a new or expanded airport in San Diego?
Yes, it will be more difficult. That's only one factor.
The other factor is that I and others said that the Port District had been given the airport by the voters of San Diego. [The airport] should not be taken [away from] the Port District except by the voters of San Diego. Steve Peace came up with another approach, which is there would have to be a vote to approve any new airport.
When you consider the question of where the airport should be -- and you have to get a majority vote for it -- it's difficult because of the voters of San Diego County. You'll find a certain number of people will say the airport ought to stay right where it is. You'll find a certain number of people who will say the airport ought to be in East County, like [Congressman] Bob Filner says. Some people will say it should be down in South Bay. Some people will say it should be at Miramar. Some people will say it should be further north, on the dry lake by Lake Hodges or someplace. Other people will say other things. Some people will say it ought to be offshore -- there are those who advocate that.
So you might find that, say, if the decision of the airport authority was to go to Miramar, the vote on that might be as much as 35 percent or maybe even a few more. And that would be more popular than any alternative, but it wouldn't be 50 percent.
And Steve Peace knows that. And I think he put in the bill to keep the airport from moving because he and his closest friend, Dave Malcolm, have repeatedly said they're opposed to moving the airport.
Why would they be opposed to moving the airport? Why would they care?
I have no way of knowing what's in the mind of Steve Peace or Dave Malcolm, but I suspect it involves somebody making a lot of money.
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Steve Peace and John Moores were invited by e-mail to respond to James Mills's comments. Peace replied:
"I have a great deal of respect for Senator Mills and understand the pride he takes in authoring important landmark legislation in his day. Times change, the needs of the community change. I know he takes changes to laws he worked on very personally and he should."
Moores did not respond.
Who Is James Mills?
James Mills, 78, served in the California State Assembly from 1961 to 1966 and in the California State Senate from 1967 to 1982. From 1971 to 1980, he was the senate's president pro tempore. As a senator, Mills played a major role in encouraging historic preservation. The Mills Act, passed in 1972, offers a 30 to 70 percent reduction in property taxes to owners who maintain their historic buildings.But Mills is probably best known for his leadership on transportation issues. In 1971 he coauthored the Transportation Development Act, which created the largest public transportation funding pool in any state. A member of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board for 11 years, and its governor-appointed chair for 9, Mills is known locally as the Father of the San Diego Trolley.