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Editorial

Surf, sand and business

Some volleyball schools, surf camps and other operations are upset about L.A. County's new bidding process. But it's fair.

August 29, 2011

Beach volleyballers and surf instructors are aghast. They have been running camps and clinics at Los Angeles County's beaches for years, charging user fees and getting automatic annual renewals of their permits to occupy public beach space and run their operations — while other volleyball, surfingand day-camp operators have waited in vain for a chance at a temporary toehold on some beachfront property. Now, the Board of Supervisors has approved a bidding process to end the automatic contract renewals that began in 1984. Current camp operators say that the status quo works fine, and that the county is about to slice up the beach and sell off the pieces to the highest bidder.

What they're really complaining about is an end to a year-to-year entitlement they never should have had in the first place. Volleyball schools and surf camps do provide a public service, especially when they teach the wonders and dangers of the ocean to kids who otherwise wouldn't get near the water. But in the end, camp operators are county contractors, and the county should be able consider all applicants and determine which ones provide the best service and, yes, in some cases, bring in the most money, in order to cover county expenses and even improve funding for beaches.

Too often, longtime contractors or tenants of public property assert that their very presence has become a valuable asset and that the rest of the public should underwrite their housing or work space. Marina del Rey yacht owners, for example, fought against rent increases on the ground that the county should subsidize their accustomed water-dwelling lifestyle rather than rent out boat slips at market rates. Olvera Street shop owners argued that rather than simply being tenants of a tourist attraction, they were the attraction and the city ought to cover part of their rent to keep them there. And now beach camps and schools claim virtual ownership of sections of sand and waves by virtue of the fact that they have been there for years.

To be fair, there is value in a good track record. But the county's new policy takes track records into account. The top factor in awarding bids will be safety standards, followed by professional experience, operating plans and community service. Financial remuneration to the county counts for only 5% in the bid process. Free programs will be automatically renewed. Programs that offer scholarships will get discounts. Bidders will "sink or swim on the quality of their program," as Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put it in waterfront-appropriate fashion.

There's a good chance that most contractors that currently run camps on county beaches will still be there next year. If they're not, and if the bidding process is fair, it will be because other bidders had more to offer. That's as it should be.

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