CORONADO, Calif. — West Coast ports from Seattle to San Diego are becoming increasingly vulnerable to meddling by politicians, much to the detriment of their commercial activities, according to a maritime industry leader.
“It is counterproductive to attracting more cargo,” John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, told West Coast customs brokers and freight forwarders meeting in the San Diego area for their annual Western Cargo Conference.
It is difficult to recall a time when so many ports were embroiled in political controversy. Even the Port of San Diego, which normally does not attract much attention, is fighting to protect its maritime business as investors backed by the local newspaper want to build a football stadium where the port’s main cargo terminal at 10th Ave. now stands.
The Port of Seattle faces a similar problem as investors want to build a sports arena adjacent to the port in the downtown area. As in San Diego, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals oppose this proposed development.
While some political leaders believe an arena would be good for Seattle because it could help to attract a National Basketball Association team back to the city, port and labor leaders are opposed to any non-maritime enterprise in the harbor area because vehicular traffic and port traffic do not mix.
Seattle has also eclipsed Los Angeles as the epicenter of Teamsters Union efforts to organize port truck drivers, McLaurin said. The Teamsters were active this past year attempting to win approval for legislation that would make the independent contractors trucking company employees, making it easier for the union to organize the drivers.
The effort failed this year, but the Teamsters will be back next year, possibly with the support of some Seattle harbor commissioners as turnover on the commission is anticipated, McLaurin said.
The Port of Long Beach, for years considered to be one of the more stable ports, is embarrassed by a spat involving a charge by one commissioner that other commissioners seek to gain personally by directing that the port move its headquarters office from its seismically unsafe building to another location in downtown Long Beach.
While no evidence has been produced to support that claim, the bad publicity and a possible investigation by the city have tarnished the port’s reputation, McLaurin said.
Long Beach’s embarrassments are certainly surpassed by events at the Port of Oakland, where a recent audit revealed the director of maritime, James Kwon, used port money to pay a tab of $4,500 to entertain port clients at a strip club in Houston in 2008.
Last week, the port’s executive director, Omar Benjamin, got caught up in the controversy involving Kwon. Oakland’s harbor commission put Benjamin on administrative leave, with pay, and named an acting executive director while an independent firm conducts an investigation.
McLaurin charged that the latest port controversy adds to events last year when the mayor mishandled protests by the Occupy Oakland movement, which he called a “low point for the port and the city.”
The Port of Los Angeles was engaged for three years in litigation filed by the American Trucking Associations to stop the port from attempting to mandate the use of employee drivers by harbor truckers. The port, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, lost the case, and since then has been quite businesslike, McLaurin said.
The maritime industry is on edge, though, because Villaraigosa’s second term as mayor will end and he will be replaced. It often happens that a new mayor appoints a new commission, and that could mean the end of the terms of Los Angeles’s current commissioners, he said.
These ports have all faced meddling by mayors or commissioners whose questionable decisions were motivated by personal gain rather than what is best for the economic engine of their communities, McLaurin said.
Then there is the Port of Tacoma, which McLaurin said is directed by a strong management team and a pro-business harbor commission that are focusing its efforts on the port’s core maritime operations.
If industry professionals, including members of the Pacific Coast Council of freight forwarders and customs brokers, want their ports to attract more cargo and clean up their reputations, they must speak out at commission meetings, in city halls and at the state capitals, McLaurin said.
“Ignore local government at your own peril. If you do not engage, you will get what you deserve,” he said.