California is seeing two current examples of offloading civic fiascos rather than dealing with them directly.
We human beings are tempted to shirk responsibility when our lapses of judgment result in negative consequences.
Rather than owning up and handling those consequences, we often try to shift the onus or remediation costs to others.
Politics is rife with examples of the syndrome, such as what happened when Southern California began to see portions of its film industry gravitate to other states and nations with lower production costs. Rather than adjusting operations to remain competitive, the industry successfully pressured state officials for subsidies from taxpayers.
Currently, there are two other noteworthy examples of offloading civic embarrassments.
The first hot mess is the Queen Mary, a 1930s-vintage ocean liner that the City of Long Beach, flush with money from its oil-producing tidelands, foolishly purchased 54 years ago. Local officials thought the ship would become a floating hotel, museum and the catalyst for repositioning Long Beach as a tourist destination, but it never happened.
Over the years, multiple corporate lessees, including the Disney organization, failed to make the Queen Mary profitable. When Disney pulled out in 1992 after abandoning the notion of a “Port Disney” amusement park, Long Beach’s mayor at the time, Ernie Kell, called the ship a “tombstone in a cemetery no one wants to visit.”
Meanwhile, the Queen Mary didn’t get the expensive maintenance such a huge machine requires. In 2017, a consultant estimated that the ship needed nearly $300 million in rehabilitation. The city responded with $23 million but how the money was spent is the subject of much fingerpointing. The last operator, an outfit called Eagle Hospitality Trust, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January.
So what now?
The Long Beach City Council has tentatively decided that rather than cutting its losses and selling Queen Mary for scrap, it will shift ownership to the city-owned Port of Long Beach, the nation’s second busiest container port.
The move is drawing sharp opposition from the shipping lines that use the Long Beach port, fearing, with good cause, that funds needed to keep the port competitive will, instead, be dumped into the bottomless pit of keeping the Queen Mary afloat.
The Queen Mary sits at the southern end of the Long Beach Freeway which on paper connects Long Beach to Pasadena, 32 miles to the north — but only on paper, because the last few miles on the northern end were never built, and that’s the other civic fiasco.
In the 1950s, state highway officials began purchasing right-of-way, mostly houses in the small city of South Pasadena, to complete the freeway. However, local opposition stalled construction and eventually, after decades of political wrangling, the project was abandoned.
That left the Department of Transportation as the landlord for mostly low-income residents of the houses it had purchased, many of them, like the Queen Mary, lacking maintenance. Politicking over the fate of those houses has raged ever since.
The area’s state senator, Democrat Anthony Portantino, is now carrying legislation, Senate Bill 381, to give tenants first crack at purchasing the houses and sell the remainder to South Pasadena at the original acquisition prices for management and/or resale.
The legislation solves Caltrans’ problem, but it’s questionable whether South Pasadena, which has only 25,000 residents and a small city budget, has the financial wherewithal to acquire and manage the 56 single family homes and 10 multifamily apartment houses involved.
In both the Queen Mary and South Pasadena situations, public agencies are washing their hands by offloading their embarrassing problems on other entities, but that’s not owning up and solving them.