County ponders transfer restrictions on port contracts
By Suzy Valentine
Future airport and seaport contracts should block assignment to other parties where there are fears for national security, Miami-Dade County commissioners said last week.
Concerns followed realization that a contract between the Port of Miami and its operators isn't sufficiently watertight to stop a transfer of power to United Arab Emirates company Dubai Ports World from Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a British company that is one of four businesses running the seaport.
In the spirit of enterprise and free trade, the contract has no non-assignment clauses.
However, the agreement, which dates from 1994 and has eight years to run, was drafted in a different era, contended Commissioner Barbara Jordan at the Feb. 23 meeting.
"The agreement took place prior to 2001," she said. "We need more latitude in the future."
"It is the uncertainty of the port's future that concerns me," agreed Commissioner Sally Heyman. "We oppose any business transaction that results in a change in our security standing."
A colleague made a similar plea.
"We can't be emotional on issues that could cost us a lot of dollars," said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, "but we do need language and flexibility for this kind of situation."
After learning of the county's powerlessness under the contract, commissioners voted on what message they could send to Congress.
The commission adopted a resolution to encourage hearings on the sale, a block on federal approval until hearings are over and to request more funds for seaport security.
The vote preceded an offer from Dubai Ports World to delay plans to run the Port of Miami and ports in Baltimore, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia.
A shortcoming in the security of the Miami River was among the issues to surface during a county commission discussion last week of how to block Arab participation in seaport operations.
Miami-Dade commissioners met Feb. 23 to consider what message they could send to Congress about plans to allow Dubai Ports World to participate in running the Port of Miami. The United Arab Emirates business has interests in US ports in Baltimore, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez asked Port of Miami Director Charles Towsley how many of the six ports Dubai Ports World could help operate had the latest security controls.
Mr. Towsley told the commission that one port was using the federally mandated X-ray machines and the equipment was installed but not operational at the Port of Miami.
"You said that we were going to be having these radiation detectors at the Port of Miami," said Mr. Gimenez. "Is that true for all the vessels that flow up the Miami River?
"If we're going to have every container (at the port) go through radiation-detection equipment," he said, "I think every container going up the river should have the same thing because the river is in the heart of our city."
Though the Miami River falls outside the seaport's jurisdiction, Mr. Towsley resolved to raise the issue when he had the opportunity.
"These radiation-detection portals are being installed as a requirement of the federal government," Mr. Towsley said. "I will get with the federal agencies and see if and how they intend to handle the river requirement."
The Miami River remains exposed, Mr. Gimenez insisted.
"If we're going to have it at the Port of Miami, which I think is a great idea," he said, "I think it's dumb that we don't have it on the river. That's just ludicrous, because I see containers go up the river every day, so if we're going to have security, let's have security 100%."
A transferal of a 25% stake in terminal operations from British company Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. caused a colleague to ponder other scenarios.
"Would it be possible, at some point or some day, that the Cuban government could buy shares in a company and in some way be involved in the operation of the port?" asked Commissioner Javier Souto, who continued in that vein.
"You've seen (Osama) Bin Laden and you've seen a television channel, Al-Jazeera, that operates from Dubai," Mr. Souto said. "Al-Jazeera is the voice of Bin Laden."
The Arab broadcaster operates from Qatar, which borders the Emirates.
Referencing China's emergence as top supplier of cargo through the Port of Miami last year, Mr. Souto highlighted another concern.
"We have a problem with the Chinese here at the port, a problem with the Chinese controlling the port already," he said. "It's a problem of political philosophy. China is a Marxist, Communist government. The world is bending over to accommodate China. China has a foothold in the port."
Emphasizing vigilance, Mr. Souto spoke of how events such as the election of President Hugo Chavez could change the political and economic landscape.
"Who would have thought a few years ago that Venezuela would become a problem?"