Legislation that would assist local agencies with abandoned sea vessels, disputes over the cost of boats slips in Marina del Rey and the fate of the California Department of Boating and Waterways were the main issues addressed at a town hall meeting at the California Yacht Club on August 13th.

State Assemblyman Ted Lieu, the event’s guest speaker, answered questions from the audience regarding Assembly Bill (AB) 166, legislation sponsored by Lieu that would provide grants from the Watercraft Abatement Fund to assist local and state agencies to dispose of boats that have been discarded and are in irreparable condition. The bill would allow boat owners to voluntarily turn their boats in to a local agency for disposal instead of leaving them in a slip or setting them adrift.

Lieu, who will be termed out of his Assembly seat next year and is running for state attorney general, began the town hall by paying tribute to boating interests and its importance to the state’s economy.

“The boating community is extremely important to our economy and it should be incentivized,” Lieu began, noting that boating is a billion-dollar industry.

The assemblyman then began explaining how AB 166 would work, and took pains to emphasize the unforced nature of the bill, which some boat owners have questioned.

“It’s completely voluntary,” he said, something that he reiterated several times throughout the meeting. “All that it says is that if you as an owner want to abandon your vessel, you can go to your local agency and say, ‘Here, I want to give it up.’”

The director of the Department of Boating and Waterways, Raynor T. Tsuneyoshi, also answered audience queries about AB 166.

Members of the standing-room-only audience asked a variety of questions, including how a vessel would be deemed abandoned even if it were still in a dock slip and what the criteria would be for determining an abandoned or derelict boat.

Tsuneyoshi explained that the condition of the boat would factor into an agency’s decision in determining if it were abandoned, and boats left behind in slips would also be considered discarded.

While many of the questions posed to Lieu and Tsuneyoshi focused on AB 166, several boat owners raised questions about local matters, namely the sharp rise in dock fees that many have been assessed in recent years. Although slip fee prices have been a source of contention for years, a group of boat owners whose vessels fall into the 25 to 35 foot range have accused the county Board of Supervisors of seeking to force them out of the Marina in an effort to court a wealthier clientele that purchases large boats.

Michael Lenerman, who owns multihull boat dealer Multi Marine on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, touched on the increase in slip fees and boat owners who say that many have been forced to abandon their boats due to financial difficulties, much of it because of expensive dock rates at Marina del Rey’s anchorages.

“When are we going to address the fact that middle-class boat owners are losing their boats because of higher slip fees?” Lenerman asked.

Andrew Bessettte, who docks his boat in Marina del Rey, asked the assemblyman if there weren’t other unknown interests supporting the bill that he was not divulging.

“Many of us view this as the next step in taking a man’s boat away,” Bessette, the president of the Marina Boat Owners Association, said. “Who is it that is urging you to keep pushing this through, and what are they giving you to do that?”

Lieu initially appeared flummoxed at Bessette’s accusation, which drew groans from the audience.

“That’s all right, I’ll be happy to respond to any question,” he said, and proceeded to list a variety of law enforcement organizations, local, regional and state boating groups, and various boating and sailing clubs.

Sgt. Mike Carriles, who works in harbor operations at the county Sheriff’s Department Marina del Rey Station, said that his department is behind AB 166, especially because of the component that would permit boat owners to turn in boats that they are no longer able to or wish to maintain.

“We have had several people who have looked at other alternatives on how to get rid of unseaworthy boats, and this gives them another option,” Carriles said.

Boating enthusiasts, harbor officials and dockmasters from across Southern California attended the town hall, and many expressed support for Lieu’s bill.

They told Lieu and the audience that derelict and abandoned boats had increasingly become a big problem, and they echoed the assemblyman’s earlier assertions that the vessels were an economic as well as an environmental hazard.

“In Northern California, we have agencies that tell us that they are dealing with an average of 30 abandoned boats a month,” Tsuneyoshi said. “That’s an increase of about 35 percent this year.”

Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay has not taken an official position on AB 166, said the organization’s legislative assistant, Sonia Diaz.

“But we would certainly support any policy that would reduce the number of abandoned boats, which can be very harmful to the ocean’s environment,” she said. “Marine debris is something that we work very hard on reducing.”

Lieu noted that a number of the questions were about local matters, such as slip-fee rates. He said that although the state does not play a part in disputes with county authorities, his office would be happy to act as a go-between in some cases.

“One of the things that I can do is act as a facilitator between the county and the state,” the assemblyman told The Argonaut after the town hall. “The state has very little role with a lot of the local issues, but we can certainly facilitate any communications between the affected parties and the county.”

Lieu said he thought that overall, the town hall went well.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “Boating is so important because it affects over $1.2 billion of the state’s economic activity and is a huge economic engine for the Southern California region and we absolutely need to promote it and incentivize it.”

Prior to Lieu’s remarks, Tsuneyoshi announced that the Department of Boating and Waterways had been spared from a plan by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to merge it with the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The governor had proposed merging it with other existing state agencies during the budget talks to save money.