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Dead in the Water : A political squabble in Dana Point threatens to take the wind out of the Marine Institute’s plans to set sail as a private agency

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Marine Institute’s plans to convert to a private agency and undertake a $25-million expansion has stalled because of an odd political impasse here.

The City Council, deadlocked 2 to 2 over whether to let the educational marine facility in Dana Point go ahead with its plans, appears to be in a hopeless stalemate: Mayor Karen Lloreda, the likely tiebreaking vote, said she cannot participate because of a potential conflict of interest arising from her carpenter husband’s job building cabinets and working on other projects at the institute.

“This whole thing is absurd,” said Stanley L. Cummings, director of the institute, Orange County’s largest marine education facility. “Some of the people on the council are parochial in their attitudes toward new things.”

The issue erupted last week when Cummings and Marine Institute supporters attended a City Council meeting seeking approval of the facility’s privatization plans. The institute, which is governed by seven public agencies under a joint powers agreement, needs approval from each to convert to a private, nonprofit agency.

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Privatizing will help raise funds from large donors and private sources that are prevented from contributing to public agencies. In addition, it reduces the risk to member agencies, Cummings said.

Five of the seven agencies have approved the institute’s plans. The Orange County Board of Supervisors is expected to do so in the near future, leaving only Dana Point to take up the matter.

According to Melvin Chambers, president of Friends of the Marine Institute of Orange County, the facility’s nonprofit, private support group, the council’s approval appeared to be a done deal, especially after he chatted recently with Councilman Bill Ossenmacher, who is against allowing the Marine Institute to privatize. Only one other council member openly opposed the plan.

"[Ossenmacher] said that he was going to support our request,” Chambers said, “but because they had such a long agenda he wanted us to cut the number of speakers to shorten the meeting. I said, ‘No problem with that,’ and I shook his hand and told some of our supporters to go home.”

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But things began to unravel when the mayor cited her perceived conflict of interest, leaving only three of five council members to vote: Harold R. Kaufman, Judy Curreri and Ossenmacher. Councilwoman Toni Gallagher did not attend the meeting but has said she is against the facility’s privatization.

Before a vote could be taken, however, Ossenmacher suddenly left the meeting. With two absences and the mayor’s excusing herself, the meeting ended because of a lack of a quorum. The privatization proposal has been removed from the council’s agenda indefinitely.

Ossenmacher denied he told Chambers he would support the plan. The councilman said he left because he did not believe he could explore the issue and ask hard questions at a meeting packed with supporters of the facility.

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“I would like to see the issue explored more,” Ossenmacher said. “I believe that what really needs to be determined is if this is the right process and in the best interests of the residents of Dana Point.”

Institute supporters, meanwhile, are puzzled at the council’s action.

“People were shocked,” said Bill Habermehl, chairman of the institute’s board of directors. “They could not believe what they were seeing. I was extremely disappointed and just baffled that those two City Council members don’t see the benefit [of the marine facility].”

Said Cummings: “The action of the City Council is jeopardizing our expansion effort. We’ve put a hold on certain activities and can keep a hold until November. But if it goes beyond that, all bets are off.”

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Established in 1977, the marine facility began as a joint powers authority with six agencies spending about $1 million in seed money. The facility’s operating budget, now about $1.4 million yearly, is earned from tuition and donations.

The six agencies are the Rancho Santiago, North Orange County, Coast and Saddleback community college districts, the Orange County Department of Education and Orange County government. Dana Point was included in the authority in 1992 when it awarded $100,000 to the institute, which was used to help buy a research vessel, build a mooring and help pay for designing capital improvements.

About 75,000 students, primarily from Orange County, visit the institute a year. The expansion is expected to increase that number to 150,000.

Plans call for expanding the 5,500-square-foot building tenfold to include a simulated underwater research lab where students can spend the night, studying sea life in a 600,000-gallon tank. “The return on student involvement is amazing,” said Habermehl, who is also assistant superintendent for the county Department of Education.

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Ossenmacher and Gallagher said they agree on the facility’s educational value.

But Ossenmacher said he believes Cummings “bamboozled” the city into paying its share--which Ossenmacher and Gallagher want returned--without first telling the City Council of the institute’s wish to privatize. Cummings denied the allegation.

Ossenmacher also wants to halt privatization to allow for open bidding instead of “handing over” the marine facility to its private, nonprofit arm, Friends of the Marine Institute.

But the city’s role in such a request is questionable. The county’s Environmental Management Agency, which supports the facility’s privatization efforts, is also the marine facility’s landlord, said Michael Ruane, county EMA director.

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Ruane said that the county’s attorney advised the board that it can assign the institute’s lease to the Friends’ private arm by a four-fifths vote. “This is a question of $1 million public dollars and you’re going to give this to a private group without bids or considering other bids?” Ossenmacher said.

Cummings said the institute would not return the city’s funds.


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