Two Harbor Commissioners up for reappointment as critical Queen Mary vote looms

Two of the five members of the Harbor Commission, which oversees the Port of Long Beach, are eligible for reappointment this month as the board later this year is expected to make a critical vote on whether to take control of the Queen Mary.

Terms for commissioners Robert Olvera Jr. and Frank Colonna ended on Wednesday, leaving their seats technically open, though they will continue to serve pending a decision by the mayor, who appoints harbor commissioners for six-year terms.

James Ahumada, a spokesperson for Mayor Robert Garcia, said the mayor has 30 appointments and reappointments to make this month for various city commissions and expects to bring the appointments to the City Council for approval in the coming weeks.

He said the mayor is planning to reappoint both Colonna and Olvera. Neither Colonna nor Olvera could be reached for comment this week.

The Harbor Commission is in the spotlight this year as the city considers shifting control of the historic Queen Mary ocean liner and the surrounding land to the Port of Long Beach. The commission would then be responsible for overseeing the ship’s lease obligations for any new leaseholders, and could be faced with the tough decision of whether to put more money into repairing and maintaining the aging vessel.

The decision comes as the ship’s operator filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January after a string of financial problems. Last month, the operator chose to give up the lease in a sudden decision in bankruptcy court, giving the city of Long Beach control over the ship’s daily operations for the first time in more than 40 years.

Long Beach has owned the Queen Mary since it arrived in the city as a tourist attraction in 1967, but for decades it has leased the ship to various operators. With Long Beach now in control of the Queen Mary, the city will have to make tough decisions for the ship’s future as it requires millions of dollars in critical safety repairs.

An inspection report in April determined the ship would need at least $23 million in critical repairs to remain viable in the next two years, while a marine survey released in 2017 found that the ship could need nearly $300 million in critical repairs.

The ship remains closed to the public as the city plans for safety repairs, including addressing the deteriorating lifeboats.

City officials have said the harbor department is better equipped to handle the Queen Mary leases and development of the surrounding land. The city is expected to release a study possibly later this month to determine the feasibility of transferring control to the department.

The plan, however, has been met with pushback from port stakeholders and the California State Lands Commission, which has concerns about possible impacts to operations if the Port of Long Beach is faced with a massive Queen Mary repair bill.

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which advocates for marine terminal operators, vessels and other maritime industry stakeholders, has also been vocal against the plan.

Association president John McLaurin in a letter to city officials on Thursday, said port tenants and customers should not be responsible for funding the Queen Mary repairs, “especially given its unsafe condition, lack of success and history of mismanagement for the past forty years.”

“While some may choose to ignore the structural concerns and dangers cited by inspectors and engineers over the years, they put the public in peril by their actions and we would caution the Port in doing the same,” he wrote.

The port, which is a city department but generally operates with autonomy, at one point had control of the Queen Mary before voting to shift control back to City Hall in the 1990s. The ship and the lease with the former operator has been overseen recently by the Department of Economic Development.  

Meanwhile, a judge in Delaware bankruptcy court on Wednesday is expected to officially approve the operator’s move to surrender the Queen Mary lease to the city. While the city has physical control of the ship, a judge must approve the transaction so the city will have legal control of the ship, said Long Beach Deputy City Attorney Richard Anthony.

The judge next week could also rule on who is responsible for the corroded Russian submarine moored next to the Queen Mary.

The sub is in danger of sinking or rolling and possibly damaging ocean liner, according to court documents, and city is now battling the Queen Mary’s former operator over who is responsible for paying millions of dollars to remove the deteriorating relic.

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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