PERSPECTIVE: Port’s Nothingburger Report on Naranjo Falls Flat

Arturo CastañaresBy Arturo Castañares

The public waited for more than 24 hours to read a highly anticipated report on National City Port Commissioner Sandy Naranjo, only to be left hugely disappointed by a confusing 23-page document full of innuendo and subjective conclusions that failed to prove that she actually did anything wrong.

This incredible miscarriage of justice started on Monday when the San Diego Unified Port District posted its agenda for the next day’s meeting which included a draft resolution to approve a censure -a formal statement of disapproval- against one of the group’s seven Commissioners.

The resolution stated vague arguments that Naranjo had “personal violations of the Brown Act”, “breached her duty of care”, and “breached her duty of full disclosure” as justifications, but offered no proof.

Naranjo’s colleagues voted 6-0 to publicly chastise her and remove her as Vice-Chair even without showing the public any proof of the allegations; instead, they promised that everyone would understand their concerns when an internal investigation report was made public, but we would have to wait until the next day to see that evidence.

Well, Wednesday came without the report being released while some unnamed people in the Port reviewed the document and blackout out certain names and information they deemed too sensitive to show the public.

Anticipation built during the day as many expected -as the Port promised- a bombshell report that would prove Naranjo was guilty of serious enough violations to justify becoming the first Port Commissioner ever censured by the Board since the District was created in 1962.

Finally, sometime after 8:00pm, the highly anticipated report was released, some 25 hours after the Board had already censured Naranjo.

So what does the report prove Naranjo did to merit her colleagues' rebuke?

Nothing. A big fat nothingburger. As the old woman in the 1980s Wendy’s commercials used to ask, “Where’s the beef?”

The report (which you can read for yourselves below) spins yarn for 23 pages but really can be broken down into three parts: The Port investigated unsubstantiated claims that Naranjo and her husband had a business that created conflicts-of-interest; that Naranjo raised issues about the Port’s lawyer during a performance review; and that Naranjo failed to give her colleagues and the lawyer a heads up that she had concerns about his performance.

Let’s break down each claim in the report.

In 2021, the Port’s lawyer, Tom Russell, received a “reliable report from outside labor leaders” that Naranajo and her husband had a consulting business that created a conflict of interest with her service on the Port Board. The report curiously doesn’t name the labor leaders for the public to evaluate their credibility.

The report details that two outside law firms reviewed the claims, but it hides the fact that both lawyers cleared Naranjo of any wrongdoing because she and her husband never conducted any business or had any income from the start-up that was created and dissolved within just a few months. The "reliable reports" were not only unreliable, they were untrue.

No conflict-of-interest ever existed, but the report contends Naranjo waited too long to help them confirm she had no conflicts.

The report then contends that Naranjo held some sort of grudge against Russell for having investigated her, so, more than a year later, when Naranjo voiced legitimate concerns about Russell in a closed session performance review with the Board, the report claims she was retaliating against him for having investigated her.

In that closed-door meeting, which was properly agendized as a performance review of Russell, Naranjo did her job as a Commissioner and raised her concerns about possible conflicts-of-interest Russell had with companies that do business on Port lands.

The purpose of a performance review was exactly that; to review and discuss the work of an employee; in this case, Russell.

Naranjo clarified that she was not filing any complaint or charges against Russell, only that she had concerns about potential conflicts of interest he may have had, and admitted to one Commissioner that she thought Russell should be fired.

There is nothing unusual, illegal, or unethical for a Commissioner to voice her concerns about -or even advocate to fire- one of the top executives in the $220 million a year public agency during his annual performance review held in a closed session meeting.

And finally, the report charges that Naranjo violated her duty of care and disclosure by not explaining beforehand to her colleagues -or Russell- what she was going to say in the closed session meeting.

Um, here’s the rub with that one.

Public agencies, like city councils, school boards, and, yes, even the Port District, are governed by the Ralph M. Brown Act, a set of state laws that require agencies to conduct their business at public meetings, with agendas, and to disclose related documents before meetings.

Under few exceptions, like personnel and legal matters, a public agency body can meet in private in what is called a “closed session” meeting to discuss sensitive items that would otherwise jeopardize the agency’s legal position if discussed in an open public meeting.

That is exactly what Naranjo did. She aired her concerns about Russell with her colleagues in a closed session meeting, as allowed by the Brown Act.

But what would NOT have been allowable would have been for Naranjo to discuss her concerns with her colleagues in private BEFORE the meeting.

That would have been a violation of the Brown Act. It would have been illegal.

So the report alleges that Naranjo violated the Brown Act by not discussing her concerns about Russell with her colleagues before the closed session that was agendized to discuss Russell’s performance.

She is being accused of violating the Brown Act by not violating the Brown Act.

Maybe the Port Board is so used to violating the Brown Act by routinely discussing items amongst themselves in private that they don’t realize they are admitting their illegal modus operandi in claiming Naranjo did something wrong. 

One important issue that is not covered in the report is that Naranjo had complained of discrimination toward her by Russell since she first got on the Port Board, but the report curiously states that those issues were “beyond the scope of this investigation.”

In the end, the report offers no smoking gun proof of any violation of law by Naranjo. The report does not prove she violated her duties or did anything more than voice her concerns with the performance of their lawyer; something she is both empowered and expected to do in carrying out her duties as a Commissioner.

The Port Board and staff took 25 hours to redact Russell’s name 24 times, as well as 21 other words, including the names of the two “labor leaders” who raised unfounded “reliable reports” of Naranjo’s non-existent conflicts. Those false accusers should be named.

It is not clear why the Port redacted Russell’s name from the report in the first place when, not only does everyone understand it’s him named in the document, but he waived his privacy concerns with respect to the report during Tuesday’s meeting.

Either the Port Board and staff took more than one hour per page to review and redact the report, which seems excessive, or they may have been trying to edit, modify, or embellish the final version to help build their case against Naranjo.

Regardless, the final report was a huge disappointment anyways and an embarrassment for the Port. It was a face-plant for the Port that damages Naranjo's credibility without a shred of proof.

In the end, it seems that powerful forces aligned against Naranjo after she raised concerns about one of -if not the most- powerful executive at the Port.

The moves this week seem aimed more at publicly embarrassing and intimidating Naranjo than to finding a way to work together collaboratively.

The public rebuke and removal as Vice-Chair was as far as the Port Board could go because Commissioners are independently appointed by each of the five Port cities, with San Diego sending three Commissioners, and one Commissioner each from National City, Coronado, Chula Vista, and Imperial Beach.

But by undercutting Naranjo, it seemed other Commissioners were trying to leverage National City into removing her and sending a new representative who wouldn’t be as challenging to the status quo.

Now that their nothingburger report proved to be a toothless attack, not only should Naranjo be allowed to continue her service as Vice-Chair, but the Board should rescind its first-ever censure and, instead, offer its first-ever apology.

Naranjo was ambushed, accosted, and harassed for no reason. A public apology and vindication seem in order.

The residents of National City, their City Council, and, especially Sandy Naranjo deserve it.

San Diego Unified Port District report on Commissioner Sandy Naranjo:

Sandy Naranjo