By George Economides- Publisher
June 4, 2013 – The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA), which represents the shipping lines at the Port of Long Beach, sent a letter May 24 to Susan Wise, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, saying its members are concerned about the resignation of the port’s executive director, Chris Lytle.
The Oakland Board of Harbor Commissioners announced May 23 that Lytle had accepted its offer to serve as executive director of the Port of Oakland. Since Lytle, who joined the Port of Long Beach in 2006, has served as executive director for just over a year, industry people were surprised he took another appointment. Many industry professionals speculated he was forced out, but no one wanted to go on record.
“I am conveying our growing concern about the port and the potential negative impact on our operations,” wrote John McLaurin, president of PMSA. “Recent events, with the latest being the unexpected announcement of Chris Lytle, coupled with other key staff departures, are making us concerned about the future direction of the port.”
McLaurin was referring to the recent announcement that Bob Kanter, managing director of environmental planning, is retiring, and that there remain open positions for deputy executive director, managing director of trade and for vice president of the communications division.
“As the port moves forward to find a replacement for Mr. Lytle, who enjoyed the universal respect of the trade community,” McLaurin continued, “we strongly urge you to find someone of similar stature and capability . . . The search process should be a time of renewal for the port and we hope the commission will put aside its past differences, individual agendas and focus on what is good for the Port of Long Beach.”
McLaurin also asked Wise for a sitdown to ensure commissioners fully understand the concerns of PMSA.
In its May 21 edition, the Business Journal issued an opinion piece praising the work of Lytle and his staff after the port was once again named North America’s #1 Port by industry executives and customers of ports from around the world. The Business Journal story said commissioners must not micro-manage the staff and that it is not their role to run the day-to-day operations of the department. Several mid level port staffers have told the Business Journal, in confidence, that at least one commissioner is “running around” telling them what to do and that morale at the port is low. And that was before Lytle’s announcement.
Shipping executives, former and current port employees and local business people who have followed the port’s progress over the past several decades are nearly unanimous in their concern over the port’s future. In conversations with the Business Journal, they agree they’ve never seen the port and its staff in such disarray as in the past two years. Many individuals point to the harbor commission appointments of Rich Dines, a former union council president, and Doug Drummond, a former police commander, as a turning point.
One person, who didn’t want his name used, said, “When they came on board, the whole atmosphere changed. It went from cooperation, discussion and compromise to being confrontational. The in-your-face, bare-knuckle’s approach is not what port customers want.” He pointed to accusations leveled by Drummond at two fellow commissioners (a story first reported by the Business Journal last September) as a “breaking point for staff morale” and “shock” that Drummond remained a commissioner. He added, “Staff and the community have for the most part envisioned commissioners working as a team. That’s evaporated.”
Lytle will remain at the Port of Long Beach through mid July. Harbor commissioners are expected to appoint an interim director this month.