Some things are just mysteries to me. Take the Port of Los Angeles.

As you can see from the article on page 1 of this issue, the port’s handling of the Clean Truck Program is a head-scratcher. (Why would the port give so much money to out-of-state truck companies while local ones are going begging? And if truck companies didn’t perform as promised, why wouldn’t the port simply demand to get its money back, as the contract calls for?)

There’s another mystery. It involves a proposal by Gambol Industries Inc., a company in Long Beach that provides various services to ships and boats. Gambol some time ago came up with what seemed like a great idea. It would create a shipbuilding and boat repair business at the Port of Los Angeles.

Believe it or not, the South Bay port complex – the country’s biggest – is the only major one without such a facility. That means barges and the like typically must sail up to the San Francisco Bay or down to San Diego to get work done. So Gambol’s shipyard would make the port complex more efficient and attractive to the shipping companies that work there.

But it’s even better. Gambol would become a paying tenant at the port, transforming what is now a collection of derelict buildings, unused except for scary movie sets, into a real business. It would put the port’s two ship-sized and underused slips to good use. The company figures its shipyard could employ up to 1,000; most would be union jobs.

What’s not to like?

Well, the port’s staff found one reason. After another.

They said they had a different plan. They want to seal off the entrances to the two big slips with a rock dike, and then fill up the cavities with dredge material from a deepening project elsewhere in the port. To me, that’s the equivalent of a landlord using his penthouse space for a dump. But Gambol said that’s fine; it could still use the slips and accommodate the dredge material by building vertical walls inside one of the slips and dumping the gunk on the other side. As a bonus, Gambol would pay for the walls. Otherwise the port would have to pay for its rock dike.

That was a year ago. Afterwards, the port kept escalating its objections. It needed more room for the sludge. Then more still. Gambol’s plan would slow down the dredging operation, the port said. But Gambol kept answering. It agreed to move its walls to accommodate more material. And its walls would go up faster than the rock dike, so Gambol’s plan could speed up, not slow down, the dredging operation. This kind of back-and-forth, some of which was aired last week at a Board of Harbor Commissioners meeting, has been going on and on, costing the owner of Gambol more than $1 million just to keep coming up with new plans and studies.

I may be a naïve idealist, but I would have hoped the port had said something like this: “Hey, good idea, Gambol. We may alter your plans some to accommodate our dump and negotiate some other points, but your shipyard would give our other tenants a service they need. Since the port is a city-owned facility, it’s our duty to help the shipping industry thrive. So let’s figure out a way to make this work.”

Instead, the port is employing the old bureaucratic water-torture tactic, apparently trying to drive Gambol mad, drip by drip.

Why? Officially, the port says it just wants to use the slips as a big dump. Unofficially, well, no one seems to have any good insight. Whenever I asked a port observer that question in the last couple of months, I typically got a faraway stare and a little shake of the head.

You know, the kind of response that says, “It’s a mystery to me.”

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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