Port Director's Successor Won't Enjoy Smooth Sailing

Staff Reporter

The resignation of Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Larry Keller may have pleased some of his detractors, but it also raises questions about the port's future.

Keller, who resigned on Sept. 17, came under fire for his handling of environmental issues, community relations and the back-room manner in which the port did much of its business.

But Keller also led the port through a phase of tremendous growth and along with its sister port in Long Beach, the Port of Los Angeles has become an increasingly important engine for the regional economy.

Replacing Keller will be tricky. Mayor James Hahn will have to find a new director who can be more responsive to outsiders' concerns, but also build on the growth that Keller achieved thanks to his 20 years of experience in the shipping industry before taking the L.A. job.

"The mayor is looking for a new executive director that shares the mayor's vision for balanced growth at the port while being sensitive to the residents of San Pedro and Wilmington," said Doane Liu, Hahn's deputy for operations.

Among Hahn's key concerns: holding air emissions to their current levels and developing a seven-mile promenade on the San Pedro shoreline that will be built where bulk storage facilities are now located. The first phase of the project is under construction.

Whoever is hired as permanent executive director faces a number of challenges, starting with renegotiation of leases. Environmental impact reports are under way for terminals operated by Maersk Sealand, Evergreen America Corp., Yang Ming Line, China Shipping Container Lines, Trans Pacific Container Service Corp. and the former Matson Navigation Co. site. The studies are all expected to be complete by next summer and fall.

In addition, many berths need to be upgraded to accommodate the channel-dredging project, which will increase the water depth from 45 to 53 feet. And there are personnel issues: Several key managers are out of the picture, including the port's chief lease negotiator, Business Development Director Al Fierstine, who went on stress leave July 21.

It's also not clear how much of an impact the cloud of ongoing audits, criticism and investigations has had on the port administration's ability to plan for the future.

"They have to get out of this state of flux," said Guy Fox, executive vice president of customs services for Carson-based Stonepath Logistics Inc. "The leader of the port needs to have a presence in every part of the world and be a go-to person a person that can give them answers."

Inside candidate

The search for a permanent hire is expected to take several months. Last week, city officials said they would contract with a headhunting firm, which will recommend candidates to Hahn. He will then submit his choice to the Board of Harbor Commissioners for final approval.

Bruce Seaton, the port's chief operating officer, is considered the strongest inside candidate. He was elevated to acting executive director when Keller left.

Seaton, whose background is in engineering, has played a larger role in the port's day-to-day operations in recent months, and is said to be the favorite of Harbor Commission President Nicholas Tonsich, who declined to discuss specifics of the search.

Seaton's drawback is that he has little of the international shipping industry experience that Keller was able to draw on in negotiations with port tenants.

Seaton is also tainted by ties to the Keller regime, which came under fire by City Controller Laura Chick and has since been caught up in federal and county investigations of city contracting procedures.

"They need change at the port," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and another Keller critic. "Taking the No. 2 person and moving that person up to No. 1 doesn't show a true change."

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the port area and publicly lobbied her brother James to oust Keller, said she was less concerned about finding someone with a Rolodex full of international contacts as she is finding someone who is sympathetic to the concerns about pollution, aesthetic and traffic long voiced by San Pedro and Wilmington residents.

"The leader of the port has to recognize the relationship between the port operations and the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington," she said.

Hahn said Seaton would do a fine job running the day-to-day operations until the position is filled. But she would favor another port executive, Chief Harbor Engineer Stacey Jones, if she were nominated.

Jones, who holds the port's third-highest post, is "someone who understands growth but more importantly, someone who understands clean growth," Janice Hahn said.

But Seaton said he is up for the job.

"I'm trying to take this port and move it forward with the mayor's vision of no net increase (in emissions), listening to our customers, the community and working with the Board of Harbor Commissioners to keep us the No. 1 port in the country," he said.

Keller came to the port in 1996 as the chief operating officer, and was appointed as executive director the following year by then-Mayor Richard Riordan. In 1997, the Port of Los Angeles moved 3 million 20-foot equivalent container units. Last year, it handled 7.3 million TEUs and is now the largest cargo facility in the nation.

Chick said she is annoyed that harbor officials have yet to complete and approve a new leasing policy more than a year after her original audit was released.

She added that Keller's resignation is not going to resolve the port's management issues. She is pushing for better overall documentation, tape recordings of all executive-session meetings and easy access to port records.

"I'm not resting easy at all that the very serious problems have been addressed," she said. "The commission should have dealt with this months ago."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.