While West Coast ports face a number of competitive challenges, the greatest threat may be internal and related to port governance. A number of West Coast ports are undergoing a transformation. Several ports will hold elections for port commissioners in 2013, while others will change through mayoral appointments. However, whether by election or appointment, port commissions continue to become more political, and in some cases dysfunctional.
In 2012, we saw port commissioners using their office in efforts to advance their political careers. Most of those efforts to seek higher political office failed miserably — as many port commissioners lacked appeal and recognition by the general electorate.
Still other commissioners spent their time in 2012 in commission meetings engaged in political preening, positioning themselves for future elective office. While many port commission meetings have become political theater, with many port commissioners preoccupied with the advancement of their personal political careers as opposed to providing management guidance to port staff, the commissioners’ self-centered actions come at a cost to employee morale and sound public policy.
Competitive challenges, whether an expanded Panama Canal, greater use of the Suez Canal or port development in Canada, Mexico and on the East and Gulf coasts, are not insurmountable — in fact they are opportunities. West Coast ports are blessed with many natural advantages compared to other gateways, including having bright and very talented staff. But the talents of port staff can’t succeed, and neither will their ports, if they are stifled by the promotional and destructive self-interests of individual commissioners.