Los Angeles officials are nearing the end of their search for a new director of the Port of L.A. nearly nine months after longtime port chief Ezunial Burts resigned his post.

The city's personnel department delivered a list of three candidates for the position to Mayor Richard Riordan in late August, according to Phil Henning, the department's assistant general manager.

Riordan will interview the finalists early next month and is expected to make an appointment which is subject to approval by the L.A. City Council in mid-October, Henning added.

Citing confidentiality requirements, Henning refused to identify the candidates.

But many in L.A.'s trade and shipping circles say the clear front-runner for the job which pays between $145,000 and $215,000 a year is interim executive director Larry A. Keller, the port's former chief operating officer, who has been leading the seaport since Burts left to head the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce in January.

The Harbor Commission's lengthy delay in seeking a replacement for Burts seems only to have boosted the fortunes of Keller, a former executive with the shipping line Maersk Inc., who joined the port as chief operating officer in April 1996.

Since assuming the post of interim director, Keller has received considerable praise for his leadership on a number of fronts including the seven-week-old harbor pilot strike and the opening of a new, state-of-the-art 230-acre shipping terminal for American President Lines Ltd. in June.

Kelly Martin, Riordan's deputy mayor for operations, also declined to identify the finalists.

Martin did say that Columbia Consulting Group, the Baltimore-based executive search firm which received the $72,000 contract to locate a new port director, came up with the three finalists after nationwide search of other U.S. port officials and shipping line executives paying special attention to those "who can think outside the box."

According to Henning, the seach for a port chief was delayed by the sheer number of positions the city has needed to fill including police chief, general manager of the Department of Water and Power and an array of less visible positions.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Port of Long Beach has a leadership void of its own, following Executive Director Steve Dillenbeck's announcement last week that he would retire after a decade at the helm.

The port's deputy director Richard Steinke, who harbor-area officials say has been groomed over the past year to take over the top spot, will become acting director when Dillenbeck leaves in early October.

The Long Beach Harbor Commission had yet to decide whether Steinke will continue indefinitely or if the position will be opened to a nationwide search, according to port spokeswoman Yvonne Avila.

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