With changes on the horizon for the San Mateo County Harbor District, its course could shift with the November election as nine candidates are vying for three seats on the Board of Commissioners.
The special district, which oversees Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay and Oyster Point Marina/Park in South San Francisco, receives about half of its $10 million budget from property taxes. In July, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury slammed the district and recommended dissolution. County officials are now studying whether the district’s breadth of responsibilities, such as operating the coast’s search and rescue team, maintaining a variety of infrastructure and managing an RV park, could be absorbed by other agencies.
A two-year-term commissioner seat is sought after by appointed incumbent Will Holsinger, who filled the term for the late Leo Padreddii, charter boat captain Tom Mattusch and Robert Grant. Commissioners Jim Tucker and Robert Bernardo are also seeking re-election to their four-year posts against four new candidates Nicole David, Kimberley Collins, Shawn Mooney and Brian Rogers. The four-year race will be covered in a later article.
Whoever voters across the county choose, commissioners will be tasked with hiring a new general manager as Peter Grenell announced he’ll retire in 2015 after 17 years with the district. The board will also oversee the development of a strategic business plan and face county inquiries into potential dissolution.
Grant, a Pescadero resident and small business owner, said the current board’s dysfunction has led to a lack of focus on the district’s responsibilities.
“Really, the harbor’s been run into the gravel a little bit,” Grant said. “Vote against the incumbents. They’re almost dictators, trying to accomplish their own agendas.”
Mattusch, a sport fishing charter boat captain at Pillar Point Harbor, said the fishing community lacks representation on the board and the district needs firm leadership.
“We need people that are willing to work together and discuss things,” Mattusch said. “Changing the composition of the board will go a long way.”
Holsinger, who was appointed to the board in 2011, lost his re-election in 2012 and appointed again in 2013, said the district’s finances are sound and four of the five current commissioners work well together.
“I have a good relationship with the senior staff and I still find there are good things to be done,” Holsinger said. “There’s been a delay in part because of some attention being required in terms of just getting along.”
Conflict at district meetings is well documented and criticized by the public. Commissioner Sabrina Brennan raises concerns and is often at odds with Holsinger, Tucker, Bernardo and Pietro Parravano, president of the Board of Commissioners.
The district hired a facilitator to help mend the board, but efforts have been postponed until after the election, Holsinger said.
Holsinger said he works well with everyone except Brennan who’s been overly critical of her peers and district staff.
“It’s part of her political agenda to take over the district and oust the incumbents and staff,” Holsinger said. “Everyone else is getting along.”
Grant said the board has been run by the “good ol’ boys club with Jim, Will and Robert a little bit as well,” but all of the current commissioners are at fault for failing to set aside their differences and focus on district issues. Grant said he would work with both sides to get the commission back on track.
Mattusch said, after 20 years of being around the harbor, the district is notorious for having personality conflicts but the status quo isn’t working and the board needs a stronger leader.
“There’s always been some type of conflict. Part of it is we don’t have a general manager that’s given direction,” Mattusch said.
Civil grand jury — flawed or feared?
Grant said dissolving the district would be a detriment to the public and the range of responsibilities deserves local control.
“I don’t think the county running it would give the people proper services,” Grant said. “I just really hate to see it not be run by locals who know the community.”
Mattusch said the county doesn’t understand the district’s specialized expertise and is taking a myopic view. Mattusch agreed the district would benefit from the jury’s recommendation to increase revenue, but doesn’t see the county fit for the task.
“Everyone thinks they can do it better. They’re looking at tax revenue, but counties don’t increase business, [Parks and Recreation Departments] don’t increase business” Mattusch said. “A lot of this [problem] is fostered by the general manager.”
Holsinger said the entire report was flawed and dissolution isn’t going to happen as the county would be left with $10 million in responsibilities without the district’s portion of property taxes as the funds would be split among other special districts.
“[The report] is basically saying the Harbor District should be dissolved and taken over because of bad financial shape is just not accurate,” Holsinger said. “The argument about people not getting along is unfounded because the only one not getting along is Sabrina frankly.”
Increasing revenue and supporting the community
Holsinger said the district’s finances are solid, has $40 million in assets and fully funded pension liabilities. It’s also looking to increase revenue by finding a new tenant for the bait and tackle shop and Drake Marine, as well as promoting the ferry in South San Francisco. Holsinger said he’s interested in developing a new visitor center that could serve as an educational draw for kids.
Holsinger said the district has also hired a consultant to engage the community during its business plan.
“We have this strategic planning process going on. It’s supposed to help us listen to the stakeholders,” Holsinger said. “I’m really looking forward to getting that work done.”
Grant said the district is doing a poor job of promoting opportunities for entertainment and business at its facilities and desperately needs to update its website. Grant said he’d like to see a fish market that could attract visitors and support fishermen.
Mattusch said the district must reduce expenses by not beginning projects it doesn’t see through, selling non-revenue-generating properties and increase funds by capitalizing on opportunities like vacancies at Oyster Point.
The district should promote the new ferry to attract business to Oyster Point and Pillar Point is ripe for an educational visitor center, Mattusch said.
The commercial fishing and charter boat industry must be engaged as the district proceeds with improvements through its strategic business plan, Mattusch said.
“They (commissioners) need to develop a rapport with the commercial fishermen because they really feel slighted,” Mattusch said. “[If] you want to support the commercial fishermen, you’ve got to bring them into the conversation.”
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