When Chris Lytle, the highly respected executive director of the Port of Long Beach, announced in May he was resigning after only 18 months to assume the same position at the Port of Oakland, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association President John McLaurin reckoned it might be the wakeup call the Long Beach Harbor Commission needed.
Long Beach, which for years had enjoyed a reputation for stability and an absence of political intrigue, has suffered on both counts the past two years.
Lytle had replaced Richard Steinke, who was also highly regarded in the Southern California port community. Steinke surprised port tenants in late 2011 by announcing his retirement after 14 years as executive director. Steinke at the time was involved deeply in the port’s 10-year, $4.5 billion capital expansion program.
Other port managers also resigned in recent months, including Managing Director Sean Strawbridge.
The PMSA, which represents West Coast terminal operators and shipping lines in political matters, believes the loss of talent in Long Beach is due to “political meddling” by the city administration and two of the harbor commissioners. McLaurin said his member companies are concerned about deteriorating morale among port staff.
The PMSA traces the port’s sinking reputation to a 2010 city proposition known as Measure D. That initiative, championed by Mayor Bob Foster and the city council and approved by the voters, changed the city charter and increased the amount of money the port transfers to the city each year under the California Tidelands Trust Act. Voters approved the measure as the city struggled with financial problems.
Even worse than the loss of port revenue, McLaurin charges, is the uncertainty port tenants face as they attempt to ascertain who to deal with on important matters such as port fees, infrastructure development and the port’s day-to-day business transactions. The harbor commission’s charter states that the commission’s responsibility is to set port policy, but McLaurin said the commission the past two years has attempted to “micromanage” the port’s day-to-day operations.
The two harbor commissioners who have been the target of the PMSA’s letters to the commission and McLaurin’s public commentaries see the situation differently. Commissioners Doug Drummond and Rich Dines say they are attempting to reach out to port tenants to hear their views before making important decisions that affect the prosperity of the nation’s second-largest container port.
After Lytle announced his resignation, for example, Dines contacted various port tenants to tell them the commission would appoint an interim executive director and deputy director, and those interim appointees would not be eligible to fill the jobs permanently.
McLaurin charged that Dines overstepped his bounds. “That goes to the issue of governance by the commission. When the tenants get phone calls from individual commissioners, are they speaking for themselves or for the whole commission?” McLaurin said.
Dines, a longshoreman, said his intentions weren’t to speak for the commission, but to let the terminal executives know he wants them to feel comfortable over where the port is going in the wake of Lytle’s departure. “I work down here. I know these people. I don’t have to call John McLaurin to get permission to talk to his members. They have my cell number, and I told them to call me if they have a problem,” Dines said.
Such incidents also reflect what McLaurin believes is a divided commission in which Dines and Drummond, the last two commissioners appointed by Foster, vote as a bloc, and the other commissioners, Susan Anderson Wise, Nick Scramek and Thomas Fields, vote as another bloc.
Drummond finds McLaurin’s charges insulting. “Ever since Dines and Drummond arrived, he has made us into the enemy. Is it McLaurin’s intention to divide the commission?” Drummond said.
Drummond said Dines has brought fresh ideas to Long Beach on key issues, including the complexities of dealing with chassis now that ocean carriers will no longer provide chassis, and seeking a rational approach to development of Pier S, the last empty space at the port large enough to house a marine terminal.
Other commissioners said that if port tenants believe the series of 3-2 votes that have taken place since Dines and Drummond were appointed to the commission reflect a divided body, things are different now. “I would say 98 percent of the votes now are 5-0,” said Wise, who is completing her term as president of the commission. “The important thing is to look at what is happening. The real work of the port is getting done.”
Fields, who is taking over as president, believes the commissioners have worked out their internal differences and are ready to move forward as a united commission. “I have seen a dramatic improvement in our relations,” he said. “I personally have no complaints.”
Fields concedes that tensions arose at the port because of the Measure D proposition, but it is now the law, and it’s time to move on. “I live with it as a commissioner,” he said, adding the commission must seek a balance in serving all of its stakeholders.
The loss of talent at the port is troubling to the commissioners, and they vowed to recruit the best available replacement for Lytle, but they said the port is still in good hands. “Talent at the port runs deep,” Wise said.
Long Beach issued a request for proposals for an organizational review of the port’s operations that will address a wide range of staff issues, including pay scales. Drummond said salary levels for some positions are significantly less than at other large ports, and with the recent departure of various managers, the city administration has noted this.
As Fields assumes the role of president, his goal will be to enhance Long Beach’s culture as a customer-friendly port that will never compromise the best interests of its tenants. He will enlist the support of port staff, which he describes as the best there is, in pursuing this goal.
“As commission president, I will listen to the staff, and I will listen to our customers,” Fields said. “That’s what the customers want. That’s what made us what we are.”