The Queen Mary has sat just off Long Beach’s shoreline for more than 50 years. And for almost half that time, Edward Pribonic has been tasked with inspecting it.
That will change Wednesday, Jan. 8, when his contract with the city — which went into effect in 1996 — ends.
City officials notified Pribonic in a Dec. 23 letter that his agreement would be terminated. The move came less than a month after a law firm representing Long Beach sent cease-and-desist letters to the head of QMI Restore the Queen, a nonprofit raising funds to preserve the historic vessel, alleging trademark infringement.
Together, the actions, both first reported by the Long Beach Post, marked a shift in how the city manages one of its most valuable assets.
The people impacted perceived the events as face-saving measures; they said they believe the folks in City Hall would rather paint over the Queen Mary’s deterioration than fix it.
Long Beach officials, unsurprisingly, have a different take. Economic Development Director John Keisler said in a Thursday, Jan. 2, interview that the decision to end Pribonic’s contract — along with other potential forthcoming changes, including to the city’s relationship with QMI Restore the Queen — is long overdue. It’s happening now, he said, because Long Beach “is probably giving (the ship) more attention in the last three years than it has been given in a long time.”
Tussle Over Inspection Reports
The decision to cut ties with Pribonic came as he began speaking more publicly about his monthly inspection reports. Though he has called out a lack of maintenance and sufficient repair progress throughout his tenure, his descriptions of the ship’s state in the past year have become more urgent.
A “priorities list must be generated at once,” he wrote in May, “to try to make gains on the great amount of deferred maintenance.”
In June, he wrote that the lack of response to deficient wiring and other concerns “create significant doubt about the maintenance and safety upkeep of the property.”
Pribonic has also spoken to the media in brief interviews about the publicly available reports.
“The biggest problem is that maintenance isn’t being performed,” he told the Press-Telegram in October. “And there is no enforcement on the city’s side to get that done.”
Four days after that story published, Keisler sent a letter to Pribonic claiming the inspector had violated a confidentiality provision in his contract. The day the letter was sent, Long Beach also commissioned the engineering firm Moffat & Nichol to review Pribonic’s work.
In response to Keisler’s letter, Pribonic hired attorney Philip Kaufler, who wrote a Nov. 12 letter denying the accusations — and going on the offensive.
“Mr. Keisler’s letter deliberately sets out false and defamatory allegations of breach of confidentiality,” the letter said, “which is damaging to Mr. Pribonic’s reputation and good standing.”
Kaufler demanded a retraction.
On Dec. 23, Deputy City Attorney Richard Anthony declined.
“The city rejects the allegations that city staff engaged in any illegal conduct,” Anthony wrote, “and the city will not retract or otherwise further address the comments already made to news agencies.”
Anthony then notified Kaufler of Long Beach’s decision to end Pribonic’s contract, without citing specific reasoning.
The Final Straw
In the Thursday interview, Keisler said the contract ended because officials had asked Pribonic for more detail on some of his reports and the inspector refused to comply.
“We should take a look more often at all of our contract agreements,” Keisler added. “We haven’t done that with this particular area of professional services for 25 years, so it is time — just from a good management and a good procurement practice — to take a look at this particular scope of service.”
Pribonic, though, said in a Tuesday, Dec. 31, statement that no one on city staff has requested clarifications on his reports for the past two years.
“In fact, Mr. Keisler and the city seem to have been very perturbed that I was reporting too much information,” Pribonic said, “at which point, the reports were withheld and the campaign against me began.”
Long Beach has not released any inspection reports since June, despite repeated requests by the Press-Telegram.
“I do not have, and do not want any part of the publicity storm that Mr. Keisler, City Council or the mayor may wish to create as a diversion to the issues on the Queen Mary,” Pribonic said. “I have simply done my job consistently and honestly for many years and will not now be made a scapegoat for Mr. Keisler’s and the city’s failures.”
All of this unfolded as Moffat & Nichol analyzed Pribonic’s work and the Queen Mary itself.
Long Beach released the firm’s report on Tuesday, which made a number of recommendations, including establishing a defect-rating system, a tracking system and a repair-activity prioritization system — the last of which, at least, Pribonic urged the city to complete in May.
Keisler said Moffat & Nichol will continue working with the city to develop those systems, and Long Beach will seek a new firm in the coming months to continue the monthly inspection reports.
Rocky Relationship With Local Nonprofit
While Long Beach officials battled with Pribonic, attorney Vern Schooley sent two letters — on Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 — to QMI Restore the Queen, which was founded in 2012, demanding on behalf of the city that the nonprofit stop using the ship’s name or likeness in its promotional materials.
Keisler said Tuesday that he did not have any involvement in those letters, but they were routine in the city’s efforts to maintain its intellectual property rights. He said the December letters in particular were triggered by a claim in a QMI Restore the Queen campaign that all funds would be overseen by the city auditor.
“We are not providing oversight, as a city auditor, of a private nonprofit,” Keisler said, “so that’s kind of what started it all, most recently.”
Keisler also said that unlike other local nonprofits that fund city initiatives, such as Partners of Parks or the Long Beach Police Foundation, QMI Restore the Queen has no official relationship or agreement with Long Beach. Because of that, he said, it’s in the city’s and the public’s best interest to push back against any implication that they’re connected.
But Mary Rohrer, the nonprofit’s executive director, said she hopes to change that. She said in a Thursday interview that she will meet with city staff next week to discuss the possibility of forming an official arrangement.
Any such agreement would have to be approved by the City Council, but, Keisler said, his team is happy to meet and help facilitate a proposal.
Rohrer, however, is still skeptical about the city’s intentions, given the cease-and-desist letters. She said lawyers have advised her that she’s not infringing on any trademarks, so she has no plans to surrender on that front.
She knows that issue will likely come up in next week’s meeting.
“They’re either going to let us help and tell us how to do that,” she said, “or they’re going to continue to threaten us. If that happens, it’s going to get ugly, because we’re not backing down.”
As for the city’s decision to end Pribonic’s contract so soon after hitting QMI Restore the Queen with legal demands, Rohrer said, “the city will basically threaten anybody they can’t control.
“I think, basically, they just don’t like anybody poking the bear,” she said, “and I think that’s what he was doing.”
Righting The Ship
What the city, the inspector and QMI Restore the Queen all seem to have in common is that they view themselves as the ship’s protectors.
For Keisler, the recent developments are evidence that Long Beach takes the task seriously.
“We’ve been so proactive and so active,” he said, “and when it comes to inspecting, especially the $23 million worth of (Queen Mary) projects that have been completed, we have vastly improved and expanded the amount of review by the city of those projects — their successes, their shortcomings, all of that.”
Although Rohrer doesn’t see it that way, she at least agrees that the city must play a key part in repairing the vessel.
“We all need to work together, and the city needs to take a more active role,” she said. “It’s time to turn this ship around.”