SENATOR CHRISTINE KEHOE TO INTRODUCE LA JOLLA SEALS BILL
by Mike Lee
San Diego Union-Tribune
Trying to end years of court battles about a colony of seals in La Jolla, the San Diego City Council yesterday launched a strategy that could save it more than $1 million in legal fees and cleanup work by allowing the marine mammals to stay.
By a 7-1 vote, the council asked the Legislature for the authority to decide what should happen to Children's Pool a beach dedicated to kids in 1931.
Given the council's action and support by Mayor Jerry Sanders, state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, said she will introduce a city-backed bill. Currently, San Diego is bound by state law to maintain Children's Pool as a swimming area for people.
A Superior Court judge has ordered the city to reduce bacterial contamination at the site, which probably would involve scaring away the seals and dredging the beach.
“I am happy to work with the City Council members and give them the tools they need to resolve the seals issue,” Kehoe, whose district includes Children's Pool, said from Sacramento after the vote. “This is a decision that needs to be made at the city level, and I hope to help San Diego do that.”
Kehoe has until Feb. 27 to introduce the bill, which probably would take months to work through the Legislature. She said the measure has a good chance of passing if San Diego officials help her gain bipartisan support.
Should the bill become law, the City Council probably would face further debate about the seals' fate and possibly more litigation.
Dozens of people on both sides of the controversy, which has lasted for more than a decade, showed up yesterday at City Hall for the council's discussion of the seals resolution.
“It does not take (us) off the hot seat,” Councilman Carl DeMaio said. “This provides us legal room to make a decision.”
During the meeting, some council members voiced strong support for the seal colony. They said it's an attraction for tourists and a boon for residents interested in marine mammals. More than 100 harbor seals live at the cove, and tens of thousands people visit the site each month.
“This opportunity to connect with nature is a draw,” Councilman Todd Gloria said.
Gloria said he backed the resolution because it offers San Diego a chance to avoid expensive cleanup work at Children's Pool and could get the city out of two related lawsuits.
“It's the right thing to do from a fiscal standpoint,” said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, a professed fan of the seals.
Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, whose district includes La Jolla, opposed the resolution.
“My concern is that this attempt to make the litigation go away will be more costly than . . . abiding by the court order,” she said.
Seal advocates hailed the council's decision, even though there's no guarantee that the Legislature will grant the city's wishes.
“This is the right thing to do, fiscally and environmentally,” said Dorota Valli, Seal Watch campaign coordinator for the nonprofit Animal Protection and Rescue League in San Diego. “It will take a long time, but I am positive that it will pass the Legislature because the bill will not cost the state any money.”
But Margaret Beauchamp of Rancho Peñasquitos criticized the council's resolution.
“I am just sick over it,” Beauchamp said. “(Council members) are trying to avoid litigation. It's not going to stop. People are going to continue to fight over this.”
San Diego attorney Paul Kennerson, who won a Superior Court lawsuit to restore the beach for human use, challenged San Diego's ability to get around the terms of the 1931 law. In that agreement, known as the Tidelands Trust, the state gave Children's Pool to San Diego as long as the city maintained it as a swimming area.
“The state of California, in my view, cannot change the purposes of this trust,” Kennerson told the council.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said the Legislature has the authority to let San Diego decide what should be done with Children's Pool. He gave the council letters from the state Lands Commission and the state attorney general that confirmed the Legislature's ability to step in.
Goldsmith said the courts have ordered San Diego to pay about $1 million to Kennerson, and that his primary goal is to help the city avoid more legal fees related to the seals.
In addition, it would cost $875,000 to dredge the beach, Sanders' office has estimated.
“This is a way to stop the bleeding,” Goldsmith said. “Get the lawyers out of the way and look for some real solutions.”