The new president of the Los Angeles port commission, S. David Freeman, listened attentively as speaker after speaker stepped to a microphone in a cinder-block gymnasium on the San Pedro waterfront.
Freeman had moved the meeting from its usual location -- the boardroom of the port headquarters -- to signal that the newly appointed Board of Harbor Commissioners takes seriously the worries of residents ringing the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's largest.
Those residents turned out in droves, complaining about diesel truck traffic from the port, calling for more public scrutiny of a new rail yard and pressing for rejuvenated marshes to lure great blue herons back to the harbor.
Then it was Freeman's turn.
He told the audience -- port managers, shipping executives, railroad officials, lobbyists and neighbors -- that he had launched a search for alternative fuels to replace heavily polluting diesel in some port equipment.
And then, impetuously, he leaned into his microphone.
"This port cannot grow doing what we did yesterday," Freeman warned. "According to the health information I've been given, this port is killing people, and we've got to cut it out as fast as we can. When I say we have to act as though our lives depend on it -- because they do -- that's serious talk."
The comment was so blunt that it made litigation-conscious city attorneys cringe. But it neatly captures the challenge that Freeman confronts: to boost trade while slashing exhaust from ships, trucks, trains and machinery at a port that has quietly swelled into one of the West Coast's worst air polluters.
Freeman, the brash and innovative former head of the city's Department of Water and Power, has embarked on a campaign to limit pollution and find new technologies -- even futuristic monorail-like systems and magnetically levitated trains -- to transform the port into an international clean-air showplace.
In four months in the unpaid job, he has emerged as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's most assertive appointee to the city's 55 boards and commissions.
"He's brilliant, and he's shaking things up, and when you shake things up, you rattle the status quo," Villaraigosa said. "I want him to challenge the powers that be, get them to think outside of the box."
The former public power czar, who was 79 when Villaraigosa named him to the post, is back on the Los Angeles stage in what is likely to be the final role in a 50-year career as a public servant.
Pragmatist, populist and dreamer rolled into one, Freeman has led all three of the nation's largest public electric utilities: the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New York Power Authority and L.A.'s DWP.
At the TVA, he closed financially shaky nuclear projects and cleaned up coal-burning plants.
At the DWP, he streamlined the agency and kept the city lighted in the 2001 energy crisis. Critics say he also overreached by embracing unproven technologies and stumbled by agreeing to a costly Owens Valley cleanup.
And later, as the state "energy czar," he negotiated contracts that helped end the crisis but were criticized as too expensive.
The son of a Chattanooga, Tenn., umbrella repairman, Freeman earned law and civil engineering degrees. As a young TVA engineer, he joined black protesters at segregated lunch counters in the early 1960s.
He went to Washington in 1961 to work on federal power issues and later served in the Johnson, Nixon and Carter administrations as an energy policy aide. There, a conversation with two "little old ladies in tennis shoes" fighting the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant sparked his interest in conservation and alternative power.
Freeman is the rare bureaucrat who is a recognizable public figure, set apart by his iconoclastic views and tart rhetoric softened by his Tennessee accent.
He has been called a "green cowboy," a nickname that reflects his interest in alternative fuels and his ever-present cowboy hat, which adds a few inches to his slight frame. He likes the label so much that he uses it as his personal e-mail address.
Freeman has won admiration from business leaders, as well as environmental activists.
Robert A. Wyman Jr., a Los Angeles-based attorney who has represented companies in air pollution cases, calls him "a creative guy" who is "not afraid to make decisions."
But some veteran Freeman watchers wonder if, enthralled by his idealistic vision and his powerful new job, he is unrealistically raising expectations about how much Los Angeles can truly clean up its port.
Brian D'Arcy, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, negotiated with Freeman when he ran the DWP. D'Arcy thinks Freeman has a tendency toward self-aggrandizement. "Has he told you that he invented the Internet yet?" he asked.
With thousands of freight-filled containers hoisted on and off ships each day, the L.A. port is vital to the region. The $52 billion it injects into the economy each year dwarfs the $34-billion entertainment industry.
But the port, the gateway for nearly a fourth of the nation's international trade, is rife with problems.
Its once-rapid cargo growth is stagnant, inching up 1.4% in the first 11 months of 2005, while the neighboring Port of Long Beach touted a nearly 19% growth rate.
Los Angeles port managers have signed no major leases in the last five years. They have not deepened the main channel for gargantuan 8,000-container ships, which must instead dock in Long Beach.
Staff turmoil has added to the instability. For more than a year, three of the port's top management jobs have been vacant.
And the port's relationships with harbor-area residents are in tatters, as escalating pollution has tarnished the coast with a brownish cast from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Huntington Beach.
This dirty air is Freeman's most daunting challenge.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach accounted for nearly one-fourth of the cancer-causing diesel exhaust in the region in 2001, the latest figures available.
Since then, diesel emissions from the L.A. port are estimated to have grown 20% to 60%.
A recent study found that diesel pollution from the ports increases human cancer risk as far as 15 miles inland. Other research has linked diesel emissions in the Los Angeles area with asthma, heart disease and underweight newborns.
Alarm has spread well beyond area residents. Wally Baker, with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., now uses a cancer-risk map when he talks to businesses about the challenges of global trade.
"We are dead if we don't do something about this. It's totally unacceptable," he said.
Freeman says he sees it as his mission to lead the port into a cleaner future.
"Antonio asked me to dream, and I'm dreaming and scheming to make some big things happen," he said recently.
Working with Villaraigosa's four other appointees to the harbor commission, he has moved swiftly to instill a new attitude toward pollution. In the past, the port has often ignored the consequences of its expansion.
The commissioners pushed through a tough policy that requires increases in air pollution from new projects to be offset with reductions elsewhere.
And they are wrapping up the port's first leasing policy, which would offer lower rent for marine terminals and other tenants that use clean fuels.
To date, all of the new panel's votes have been unanimous.
Freeman has also acted on his own.
At his urging, the port has solicited ideas from the bio-fuels and liquefied natural gas industries for ways to power port equipment, receiving 23 responses so far. He visited a General Atomics research park near UC San Diego to view an experimental maglev train and study whether it could move cargo around the port. And he is conferring with Texas A&M; University to see if a diesel-free monorail-type system could whisk cargo to the Inland Empire.
But the port cannot reduce pollution on its own, and Freeman has signaled to powerful companies that they need to step up to the plate.
Twice in recent months, he pressed for major changes in plans for two sprawling rail yard projects in the port area, taking on the nation's two largest railroads, long accustomed to deferential treatment. In both instances, he won concessions.
At one hearing in Wilmington, he tried to listen quietly as 15 residents assailed plans for a new BNSF Railway yard that would bring more than 1 million diesel trucks a year through a poor, largely Latino neighborhood. Finally, he abruptly stood up and faced the crowd.
"Let me tell you, folks, there are not going to be diesel trucks," he announced. The spontaneous decision forced stunned port officials to rewrite the legal guidelines for the $175-million rail yard.
Two weeks later, Freeman went eyeball to eyeball with Union Pacific.
Two self-confident rail executives, imposing in dark suits and polished shoes, confidently began to unfurl their plan to double their Wilmington yard -- until one of them chose to cite President Truman to make a point.
"I'm delighted to hear you invoke the name of Harry Truman," Freeman interrupted. "I recall when he tried to take over the railroads one day."
Then he lambasted the plan because it failed to include a proposal to require that clean-fuel trucks drop off and pick up cargo at the rail yard.
When one executive protested that the railroad has no control over independently owned trucks, Freeman pointedly warned: "To get your project approved, which is what I think we have a common interest in, we're going to have to develop a clean transportation option."
His style has delighted harbor-area residents and activists who attend the meetings. But some city officials wonder whether Freeman will be capable of ceding some authority to the port's new executive director, Geraldine Knatz, who is set to start her new job Jan. 23.
Some port staff members complain that Freeman can be arrogant, pointing out that he regularly asked port police to chauffeur him from his Marina del Rey home to the port and City Hall. Freeman, acknowledging the criticism, said he began driving himself two weeks ago.
Privately, some port staff also grouse that he is autocratic and harsh, but the mayor's advisors brush off those gripes.
"Can he be gruff sometimes? Sure, he can be gruff," said Deputy Mayor Robert R. "Bud" Ovrom. "The mayor didn't appoint him to be a potted plant."
Freeman has not only shifted the port's stance on its pollution, but has worked to repair its relationship with the most obvious victims of its pollution: neighbors who complain that the port is high-handed and secretive.
He and the commission's vice president, Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza, have repeatedly nudged port managers to be more open. The port's website now posts voluminous public records and a list of the lobbyists who have met with commissioners.
And the commissioners have agreed to spend $33 million to help restore rare coastal marshes in Los Angeles, ending a long-criticized practice of passing over local efforts in favor of high-profile projects in other counties.
But no change has had a more profound effect on public opinion than the way Freeman runs the harbor commission's twice-monthly meetings.
The commissioners used to meet in the second-floor boardroom at port headquarters in San Pedro, seated on a dais in hefty, upholstered executive chairs, which they swiveled with authority.
Freeman's commission has never met in the room.
Instead, under his orders, the commissioners alternate between a San Pedro gym and a Wilmington community hall so near the water that they are interrupted by the loud, rhythmic hum of ships headed out to sea.
The previous president, Nicholas G. Tonsich, conducted orderly, formal, even hushed sessions as dark-suited tenants and consultants looked on.
Freeman's meetings are freewheeling and unpredictable; one lasted until nearly 2 a.m. And the audience has tripled as curious residents flock to watch.
His style is a piquant blend of brusque commentary and engaging humor.
He frequently interrogates senior managers and officials with business at the port like a crotchety professor trying to trip up unprepared students.
But he sometimes softens his sharp rejoinders with vinegar-laced humor.
At one commission meeting, he directed port officials to hasten plans to spruce up the dingy Wilmington waterfront, not set to be finished until 2011.
"I want you to get a sense of urgency about this -- 2011 is a long ways off for a guy 79 years old," he joked, prompting faint smiles from nervous port managers.
Freeman turned 80 on Saturday. The project's finish date is now 2009.