The departure of James McJunkin as port director at Long Beach, Calif., is the latest example of a trend toward more active port commission boards. It's a trend that has complicated the jobs of port directors throughout the United States.
Mr. McJunkin, top man at Long Beach for 10 years, will step down Monday to become the port's international trade and marketing adviser. The change follows friction between Mr. McJunkin and Long Beach port commissioners, who felt they were being circumvented by the port chief's direct dealings with carriers and shippers.To those who follow the business of seaports, the Long Beach developments have a familiar ring.
In the last five years, there has been a sea change in the relationship between directors and their boards," said Edward J. Sheppard, a partner in the Washington-based law firm of Schmeltzer, Aptaker and Sheppard, which represents many port authorities. "Board members have become more politically active."
Since the early 1980s, the traditional port board, comprised of the local business community, which by its very nature was white male" has changed into one comprised of blacks, women, labor representatives and other community interest groups," Mr. Sheppard said.
Many of the nation's ports - and Long Beach is a prime example - have accumulated sizable sums of money and local influence. Along with that increased power has come community pressure for broader-based representation on the boards.
A result of all this has been increased turnover among port directors. Within the last two years, port directors in Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Mobile, Galveston and many smaller ports have resigned or taken early retirement, in some cases after disagreements with their boards.
We're definitely seeing more turnover, and that has its good and bad sides," said Erik Stromberg, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Port Authorities in Alexandria, Va. You want to get new blood in once in a while, but you also need continuity."
Edward S. Reed, who retired two years ago at New Orleans port director, said port administrations nationwide have become more politically involved and in many cases have sought to assume duties traditionally handled by professional staff.
It's natural for harbor commissioners to feel an executive director who makes decisions without extensive consultation is attempting to bypass the
commission, Mr. Reed said.
But he said the port director is simply responding to the maritime industry's competitive nature and distaste for publicizing matters such as tariffs.
James Dwyer, executive director of the port of Seattle, said port commissioners in the Pacific Northwest kept a relatively low public profile until Seattle commissioners attracted local attention in the early 1980s with a surprise vote to rename the regional airport for the late Sen. Henry Scoop" Jackson, D-Wash.
Washington is one of a handful of states where port commission boards are still elected. In most places, commissioners are appointed. Many industry leaders say politics can be diminished if commissioners are appointed to boards, rather than elected.
Don Welch, executive director of the South Carolina State Ports Authority for 17 years, praises South Carolina's process of having the governor appoint commissioners to seven-year terms, subject to state Senate approval.
If you're looking for stability and business direction, then our system is superior to all that I know about," said Mr. Welch.
Frank Donahue, former executive director of the port of Palm Beach, Fla., said he's always been a proponent of appointed port commissioners because it tends to take politics out of the port. Obviously if elected, commissioners have to run on some political party banner and promises are made."
John Ricklefs, vice president of Frederic R. Harris Inc., a New York consulting firm that works with ports, notes that port commissioners today have greater ability to travel around the world to compare notes and bring home grandiose plans for their own ports.
He said that sometimes causes difficulties within a port.
The fact is these organizations are competitive but they do have to respond to desires of local residents as represented by board of directors," said Mr. Ricklefs. They've been to Rotterdam, and want it at their local port."