Los Angeles harbor officials took the first step last week to find a replacement for longtime port director Ezunial Burts nearly six months after Burts resigned.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners voted to award a $72,000 contract to Baltimore-based Columbia Consulting Group to conduct a nationwide search. City officials blamed the delay on the lengthy process of locating a search firm and the time needed to define their notion of the ideal candidate.

“We have been moving quite slowly because this is a very important position for the port and the city,” said Harbor Commission president Leland C. Wong.

Even so, it took the Police Commission less than two months to hire a search firm after the commission decided not to reappoint Willie Williams as police chief on March 10.

Some insiders believe the delay in launching the search for Burts’ replacement only serves to bolster the chances of acting port director Larry A. Keller.

Keller, a former Maersk Inc. executive who was hired as the port’s chief operating officer in April, 1996, has been running the port since Burts left to head the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Somebody apparently likes him,” said one harbor-area official who asked not to be identified. “He’s in a real strong position. It’s his job to lose.”

Wong denied that Keller was a favorite for the position.

“We appreciate the value he has brought to the port,” Wong said, “but we are going to engage in a very thoughtful process and look at talent across the country.”

One factor that has delayed the search is the sheer number of positions the city is seeking to fill including police chief, general manager of the Department of Water and Power and an array of less high-profile positions, said Phil Henning, assistant general manager of the city’s personnel department.

“It has taken a longer time than it should have taken,” Henning said. “But we have been overwhelmed by the number of searches going on at one time. This is unprecedented.”

The search should be completed by August, Henning said. After that, a list of candidates will be delivered to Mayor Richard Riordan, who will make the appointment, which is subject to approval by the City Council.

The region’s trade community appears largely untroubled by the fact that the Port of L.A. has been without a permanent boss for so long.

Despite the lack of permanent leadership, the port has scored a number of coups in recent months including the opening of the new, 230-acre shipping terminal for American President Lines, Ltd. and the news that container traffic was up 16.7 percent for the first three months of 1997.

In fact, shipping officials expressed much more concern about another action the Board of Harbor Commissioners took at its meeting last week approving a Memorandum of Understanding to transfer $20 million from port coffers to the city’s general fund. The MOU is expected to be voted on by the City Council this week.

The funds, according to the Harbor Commission, are to pay for city services in the harbor, such as fire protection, as well as to reimburse the city for “underpayment” of such services in the past.

Such revenue transfers have long dismayed the port’s tenants, who say they end up paying inflated tariff charges to make up for the reimbursements.

Charging that such revenue transfers are illegal, the state attorney general last year filed suit to force the city to return $20 million it had taken from the port. After the suit was filed, the city made a second transfer of another $20 million.

If approved, last week’s MOU would bring the total amount of funds transferred from the port to the city over the past two years to $60 million.

Robert A. Clark, an executive with American President Lines and president of the Steamship Association of Southern California called the transfers “a deliberate attempt to overcharge the port.

“Paying additional port charges to subsidize the City of Los Angeles is not in our best interests,” said Clark. “We already pay taxes. We think we’re getting double- and triple-dipped.”

Riordan’s penchant for dipping into department funds to pay for city services has gotten him into trouble in the past.

In April, the City Council voted to return nearly $31 million in disputed funds to the Department of Airports, after Federal Aviation Administration froze some $60 million in federal capital improvement grants.

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