The AQMD action sent shock waves through the port, whose officials viewed the decision as a signal that its good-neighbor policy in San Pedro was beginning to backfire.
"We can't live with having another administrative agency say that industrial facilities can't be here because the recreational users complain," Jonathan P. Nave, deputy Los Angeles city attorney for the port, said at the time. "It would allow the tail to wag the dog."
Port officials warned that the AQMD action against Kaiser International, which pays the port about $2 million a year in rent, "would impact planning for all future facilities in the West Channel area of the port." In a letter to the AQMD, Mayor Tom Bradley said closing the bulk loader "would have a devastating impact on the well-being of literally thousands of Americans."
But the boat owners, residents and AQMD staff refused to back down.
It took a hearing before the district's appeals panel to overrule the decision. Even then, the boat owners pledged to continue filing complaints against Kaiser International. Under pressure from Flores and the City Council, the port eventually promised to move the bulk loader away from the recreational part of the harbor by 1993.
Flores said the drawn-out battle over the bulker loader demonstrates how clumsy the port can be when confronted with issues important to the community.
"It is the responsibility of the (Harbor Department) staff to see a situation and not need to wait for complaints," Flores said. "I would like to see more initiative on the part of the port. It shouldn't have to come from the community, and it shouldn't have to come from the political arena. How long have we been asking them to do something about Kaiser? It took an action of the City Council for them to do anything."
Port officials attribute the battle over Kaiser International to "transitional problems" associated with converting the harbor's West Channel into a recreational playground. At worst, they said, the port can be faulted for trying to be too good of a neighbor--that is, going ahead with the recreational development and raising public expectations before moving Kaiser International and other industrial facilities.
"By attempting to accelerate our recreational development, we have in fact put ourselves in this difficult situation," said Ezunial Burts, the port's executive director. "But this is transitional, and the long-term benefits to the community are worth it."
The port's emerging status as, in effect, a huge corporation with great financial and civic responsibilities has required port officials to attempt a difficult balancing act--one that is largely unfamiliar to many of its bureaucrats who for years concentrated on day-to-day operations with little notice of the surrounding communities.
Some Harbor Department officials say privately that it has been difficult to re-educate some staff members, with projects geared toward non-commercial aspects of the port often meeting bureaucratic resistance. But the port's top executives say any such problems are temporary.
"Once in a while I hear people say that the staff is unresponsive to this or to that," said Distenfield, who has been on the board less than one year but is already its vice president and one of its most outspoken members. "I do think that maybe out of habit our staff is always thinking, 'commercial, commercial.' But I do think they are trying to change. They will change."
As an example of the port's willingness to break away from exclusively business-oriented goals, Distenfield and the other board members approved the cement importing factory opposed by Gertrude Schwab and her Wilmington neighbors but required that the company to adhere to a route that keeps the trucks out of residential neighborhoods.
Peter Mendoza, president of the largest homeowners organization in Wilmington and an outspoken critic of the port, said any concession by the port is viewed as progress. For years, Mendoza said, Wilmington residents were unable to get the Harbor Department to take their concerns seriously.
"We are subsidizing the existence of the harbor with our city streets and the air we breathe," Mendoza said. "Nobody is saying shut down the Harbor Department. We are saying, 'Good. We are glad you are trying to make a profit and create jobs, but at the same time let's not be so damned greedy.' You just can't go out and make big bucks off the back of the community."
The Harbor Department is one of three so-called proprietary departments in the city, meaning it is not tax supported. Instead, it makes money by leasing its land to shipping lines, collecting tariffs on goods that go through the port, charging marina fees and through other operations. As a result, it in some ways resembles an independent agency, neither reliant on the city for funds nor required to give any of its profits to the city.