While the focus of the container shipping industry has understandably been trained on U.S. East and Gulf coast ports this year, political squabbles at several U.S. West Coast ports are slowly bubbling over.
In Long Beach, a rift has emerged among the port’s harbor commission over accusations that two commissioners and some former port and city executives influenced a decision to relocate the port’s headquarters to a specific location for their own financial benefit.
The allegations have pitted Commissioner Doug Drummond against fellow commissioners Thomas Fields and Nick Sramek, with Drummond contending his colleagues voted to move the port’s administrative offices to the Long Beach World Trade Center as part of a sweetheart deal. The port is currently eyeing new locations as its present building has been deemed seismically unsafe.
In a letter leaked to the Long Beach Business Journal
, Fields angrily denied the allegations, which were made in a closed-door session, and demanded the city investigate Drummond’s behavior.
That demand was taken up by two city council members in early October, but shot down by the city’s attorney, who said it was outside the scope of the city’s charter to have an independent investigation on such a matter. And aside from that, any discussions that occurred in a closed session couldn’t be disclosed publicly.
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said the disagreement was overblown. “Quite frankly, I think everybody ought to cool their jets and act like adults,” he said at an Oct. 2 council meeting.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, a battle is being waged over whether to use port land to build a new basketball arena (in the hopes of landing a relocated NBA team). The arena would be located near the city’s relatively new football and baseball stadiums.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has fought the plan to build the arena, saying it would rob port truck drivers and longshoremen of valuable jobs.
“Our No. 1 priority is protecting living wage family jobs on our port terminals, and we will pursue all mitigation options as necessary to keep those jobs,” ILWU Local 19 President Cameron Williams said after the city council voted Sept. 24 to approve a memorandum of understanding in favor of the stadium project. “This is not a ‘done deal’ until we are assured that not a single job will be lost.”
Earlier in the month, a group of local port advocates, including Williams, wrote to the council that the project threatened the future of maritime and trade activities in Seattle.
“Building a third arena in the middle of a freight corridor, next to the port, on land designated and preserved for industrial purposes, would be detrimental to our and the city’s industrial manufacturing, freight, and maritime future,” they wrote. “This will be the first domino in the loss of much of our trade and manufacturing base.”
In mid-October, ILWU Local 19 filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court to challenge Seattle and King County’s decision to move ahead with the proposed sports arena.
The fight over the arena involves more than just city officials and port advocates. In August, a letter from 13 state legislators questioned Port of Seattle Chief Executive Officer Tay Yoshitani’s role as member of the board of Seattle-based freight forwarder Expeditors International.
It was later discovered by the Seattle Times
the state political director for the Teamsters drafted the letter. The newspaper suggested the letter was sent to create a sense of uncertainty surrounding the soundness of the port’s decision-making just as it was fighting the arena plan. Pro-arena groups were said to be happily watching the drama unfold.
And finally, in San Diego, the owners and executives of U-T San Diego
, the largest newspaper in the city, are being questioned for strongly advocating the redevelopment of the city’s port into a waterfront stadium and conference complex.
The newspaper, formerly called the San Diego Union-Tribune
, has run editorials throughout the year denouncing the port, including one in August that called into question a long-term deal with Dole Fresh Fruit Co. for the use of nearly 1 million square feet of space at San Diego’s 10th Avenue Marine Terminal.
The newspaper’s CEO John Lynch said the deal was made to prevent a debate about whether the port should be disbanded and used to build a more profitable development. He later took his case directly to the port.
“Last month, Lynch sent an email to the city’s port commissioner warning that there would be a campaign to ‘disband the port’ if the commissioner did not vote for certain provisions that would help move along the newspaper’s vision for the port,” said a report by the Columbia Journalism Review
The saga has been documented by investigative news site Voice Of San Diego
, which is raising ethical concerns about the role the newspaper is playing in the future of the port.
Container shipping advocates have decried the acrimony in all three ports as being detrimental to the goal of increasing cargo flows through the West Coast.
The Southern California and Puget Sound regions depend heavily on the direct and indirect impacts of container trade, and any sort of disharmony could influence cargo interests to avoid these gateways.
It’s inevitable that squabbles, often petty, get in the way of local politics. But when those squabbles interfere with international trade, and not just potholes or school districts, the effects are magnified. - Eric Johnson