President of Long Beach Harbor Commission ousted by City Council
The Long Beach City Council removed a key member of its harbor board Tuesday evening in an unprecedented move that leaves the port with two vacancies in top leadership positions.
On a 6-3 vote, council members approved Mayor Bob Foster’s recommendation to fire Thomas Fields, the embattled president of the Long Beach Harbor Commission.
His ouster comes at a critical point, when the Port of Long Beach is overseeing billions of dollars in improvements while it continues to search for an executive director.
It also marks the first firing of a city appointee without cause since 2007, when a voter-approved charter amendment gave the mayor increased powers, including the ability to remove commissioners and board members with a two-thirds vote of the council.
Before that amendment, only the City Council could remove appointees for specific reasons such as incompetence or malfeasance.
Fields, appointed by the mayor in 2009 and elected president in June, has clashed with Foster in recent years, most notably over the commissioner’s port-related travel expenses and his failed plan to relocate harbor headquarters to the World Trade Center in downtown Long Beach -- a plan the mayor called “a bad deal” for the city.
Foster again raised those issues Tuesday in an address to the council.
“Mr. Fields has been immune to suggestions or advice and is often dismissive,” Foster said. “I have no confidence that he can lead the port, or appropriately weigh broader city concerns in harbor department actions.”
Fields defended his record, and urged the council to delay action until a city auditor’s report examining port travel expenses is released early next year.
“Every decision I’ve made as a member of this commission has been based on what’s best for the port and the city,” Fields said, arguing that trips abroad helped bring business to the port.
Fields traveled on eight of the 12 international trips taken by harbor commissioners between October 2011 and June 2013. His fellow commissioners traveled on four to five international trips each.
He also stated that his removal could “chill the honest discussion of ideas” in city government.
“Never before has a mayor removed anyone for a difference of opinion, and that’s what we’re faced with here,” Fields said.
Dozens of supporters, including two port industry groups, spoke in Fields’ defense during a discussion that lasted more than an hour.
Councilman Al Austin called the move “unjust” and “an embarrassment” to the city that would bring instability to the port. Austin, along with Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske and Councilman Steven Neal, voted against Fields’ removal.
“I felt what happened last night was very unprofessional,” Schipske said in a telephone interview Wednesday, calling the mayor’s statements “inappropriate.”
“I’m hoping we can move forward because the port is such an economic engine in this region and our city,” Schipske said.
Neither the mayor nor Fields could be reached for comment.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.