The political climate surrounding the Port of Long Beach has claimed another victim, with Nick Sramek announcing his resignation from the Board of Harbor Commissioners.
In a letter to Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, Sramek said he has “great concerns about the port and its politically-charged dealings with the city. I feel that the direction undertaken by the city could have potentially dire effects on the port and its customers, and consequently our local economy.”
In an interview Monday, Sramek said the influence being exerted by Foster and the city council over the harbor commission has been felt over the past two to three years, but lately it has accelerated to an unacceptable degree. “It has gotten harder to make a decision — to make the right decision — because we’re being told, being influenced what to do,” he said.
Foster and the city council this past year accused the harbor commissioners of excessive travel when they visited some of the world’s top shipping lines in Europe and Asia to promote Long Beach as a desirable gateway. Shipping lines have been strengthening the alliances in which they operate, and the three largest carriers — Maersk Line, CMA CGM and Mediterranean Shipping Co. — plan to begin operating the P3 Network in the trans-Pacific, Asia-Europe and trans-Atlantic trades next year if it is approved by regulators.
Sramek noted that while Foster and the city council were publicly criticizing the Long Beach Harbor Commission for excessive travel, Eric Garcetti, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, gave a speech in which he said he wants Port of Los Angeles harbor commissioners to be more aggressive in promoting the port. “Garcetti said they’re not spending enough time with their customers,” Sramek said.
The Long Beach Harbor Commission also has been involved in a yearlong dispute with Foster over the location for a new port headquarters to replace the existing seismically unsafe building.
Sramek said the building issue “takes all of our energy,” leaving little left to address the real issues facing the port, such as the port’s $4.5 billion infrastructure development program, and maintaining good relations with its existing customers and seeking new customers.
Seeking new business from shipping lines has become a top issue for West Coast ports and their terminal operators as the carrier alliances flex their muscles and choose new gateways for their vessel calls. Terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach have said the nation’s largest port complex has about 30 percent excess capacity, so attracting new business is crucial to their economic performance.
The latest event pitting Foster and the city council against the harbor commission took place last week when the mayor asked the council to remove then Harbor Commission President Thomas Fields from the body. It was an unprecedented move because no commissioner in the history of the port had ever been removed before his term expired.
Foster said he did not have to show cause to remove Fields, and in fact emphasized he was not accusing Fields of any wrongdoing. Rather, he told the city council meeting that Fields refused to “harmonize” the needs of the port with the needs of the city. Foster also repeated the charge of excessive travel.
“What he did to Thomas, that was the final straw,” Sramek said.
Sramek was vice president of the harbor commission until last week when Fields was removed. He was set to move up to become president, but he tendered his resignation the next day.
Sramek said he is concerned about the ability of the Port of Long Beach to find a talented executive director in this climate to replace Chris Lytle, who served only 18 months as executive director in Long Beach. Lytle, who had extensive experience in the shipping industry, surprised the Southern California maritime community by resigning abruptly last summer to take the same position in Oakland.
As he told a Long Beach Harbor Commission meeting on Nov. 18, Sramek said the commission should slow down in choosing a new director. “People don’t have confidence in the port anymore. We have to build it up or we won’t get a top contender,” he said.
In fact, Harbor Commissioner Rich Dines has stated that maybe a candidate with industry experience is not the best choice for executive director, but rather someone who is from Long Beach and understands the needs of the city and the port’s relationship to the city.
Sramek’s advice to the three remaining harbor commissioners — the bare minimum needed to have a quorum on the five-person commission — is to work together and resolve differences in private before the commission goes public with its votes.
He compared the current commission with the harbor commission in 2006. That commission worked closely with its counterpart in Los Angeles to develop the watershed clean-trucks plan for the harbor. Sramek said the clean-trucks plan is significantly more important, and its effects will be more long-lasting, than current issues such as commissioner travel.
“We fought over issues, but then we came together and approved the clean-truck plan,” he said. “I think the commission needs to get back to working together.”