LONG BEACH, Calif. — The Long Beach City Council Tuesday night voted to remove Harbor Commission President Thomas Fields from the port body, scoring a major victory for Mayor Bob Foster, but alienating the shipping lines and terminal operators who call Long Beach home in Southern California.
The action is the culmination of a series of damaging events for Long Beach that include the abrupt resignations of two highly-respected executive directors, the loss of several department heads and Foster’s criticism of Fields for “excessive” travel in visiting the headquarters of the world’s largest shipping lines in Europe and Asia.
“This is an embarrassment,” said Councilman Al Austin, who sided with two other council members on the losing end of a 6-3 vote. Austin said he heard “nothing compelling” in the reasons Foster gave for wanting Fields removed. Austin said that in recent weeks he met with a number of maritime industry executives in Long Beach, and everyone spoke highly of Fields.
Frank Capo, senior vice president and chief commercial officer of Total Terminals International, who operates the largest container terminal in Long Beach, told the commission that Fields has the respect of port tenants. “He listened to our issues and supported them,” Capo said.
Foster said he wanted to remove Fields not because he is accusing Fields of any wrong-doing, but rather because during his three years on the harbor commission, Fields refused to harmonize the interests of the port with the interests of the city.
Foster cited Fields’ opposition to the mayor’s preferred plan for replacing the port’s seismically-unfit headquarters building, and his disagreement with Fields over a port security issue that the mayor said he could not discuss in public.
Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske, who also voted against the mayor’s budget item to remove Fields, said some of the other harbor commissioners voted with Fields on the port headquarters and security issues. “Why not remove all of them?” Schipske said.
The real issue, Schipske charged, is that Fields is the chair of the harbor commission search committee for a new executive director. “The mayor has someone picked out and he wants to get Fields off of the search committee,” she said.
Foster shot back, “I have no candidate for any position.”
It is obvious that the Southern California maritime community is deeply concerned about the port’s deteriorating image in the industry, the public disagreements between the mayor and the harbor commission and how these events will affect the port’s ability to attract top talent from the industry.
In addition to finding a permanent executive director, the port is looking for a permanent deputy executive director and several department heads because of a flurry of resignations during the past year.
“We represent your customers,” said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. McLaurin said his member companies, which are all of the major shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast, disapprove of what the mayor is doing. “There is no upside to this,” he said.
In his comments to the city council, Fields said that his travel schedule has been greater than other commission members because, in addition to going on the business trips he was scheduled to take, he went on several other trips because commission members who were supposed to participate in the missions asked him to go in their place.
Fields emphasized that this is a crucial time for the maritime industry because carriers are expanding their alliances and rethinking their port calls. This development could result either in the port gaining new business, or if not handled properly, losing some of its existing business.
This message apparently did not register with the six council members who voted for Fields’ removal. Councilman Gary DeLong said he supported Foster’s decision because the mayor has lost confidence in Fields. Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal chided the council members who spoke on Fields’ behalf for disrupting what was supposed to be a “dignified proceeding.”
She could have been referring to Schipske’s admonition to the mayor not to “govern by bullying.”