L.A. Council Expected to Reject Port Contract

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council is poised today to reject a decision by the city’s port commission to award a $540,000 consulting contract to former port Executive Director Larry Keller after two council committees unanimously opposed it Monday.

It is extremely rare for the council to formally involve itself in decisions made by the port commission. But several council members said they were outraged by the commission’s action last month, which some said “did not pass the smell test.”

“I think this contract sends a terrible message,” Councilman Dennis Zine told Bruce Seaton, the port’s interim executive director. Zine, chairman of the council’s Personnel Committee, added that he does not think it is “suitable” for Keller to be employed by the city.

Keller, who has testified before a federal grand jury probing city contracting, resigned under fire in September as head of the nation’s largest port.


Less than a month later, port commissioners voted unanimously to pay him $180,000 a year for marketing work.

Within hours of the commission’s vote, several City Council members were expressing outrage and saying it was inappropriate to pay Keller so much, given his status as a witness in a federal investigation. Last month, council members voted to scrutinize the decision.

Under the City Charter, the council has the power to assert jurisdiction over commission decisions and then either uphold or reject them. Such actions require two-thirds approval of the council’s 15 members, or 10 votes.

On Monday, in a joint hearing of the council’s Commerce and Personnel committees, all six council members on those panels voted to reject the contract. Seaton was the sole representative from the port -- despite a letter from councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Zine specifically requesting the presence of port commissioners.

If the council today votes to reject the decision, the port commission can either let the matter drop or draft a new contract with Keller -- one that the council may be more likely to accept.

Seaton stressed that the port could benefit greatly from Keller’s personal relationships with shipping companies around the world. He said officials believe that Keller, who was head of the port for seven years, would be able to use his contacts to work with shippers on such things as promoting environmentally friendly shipping and easing congestion at the port.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone is more uniquely qualified,” Seaton said.

But he also conceded that the original contract with Keller was vague, included mistaken references to public relations and did not lay out specific tasks for Keller to perform.


Some members, such as Janice Hahn and Tony Cardenas, indicated that they might be willing to pay Keller as a consultant -- if the contract clearly described what he would do.

Hahn, who represents San Pedro and had called for Keller’s resignation for months before it came, said she had many criticisms of Keller but believed he could work well with shipping firms.

Still, she added, the contract needed to be much more clearly defined. “I don’t think we can get away anymore with these vague contracts,” she said.

Other council members, such as Villaraigosa and Zine, expressed distaste for the idea of paying Keller, even if the contract were better worded.