Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster succeeded in ousting Thomas Fields from his position as the president of the Harbor Commission for the Port of Long Beach at the Nov. 19 Council meeting. However, that night, the mayor had to fend off damaging accusations from a variety of people who questioned his motivation for requesting to remove Fields from office. Among his critics was 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske. She took her usual spot at the seat to the mayor’s immediate right, as Foster read from a statement that outlined his reasons behind his request.
According to the city charter, the mayor does have the ability to remove a commissioner if he is able to receive the concurrence of two-thirds of the Council. City Attorney Charles Parkin confirmed at the Council meeting that Foster needed six out of the nine councilmembers to agree with him, and despite the fact that numerous supporters of Fields loudly voiced their opposition to the mayor, six councilmembers did vote to approve the recommendation to remove Fields.
Foster stressed that his choice to ask the Council to make this decision wasn’t over a mere disagreement between Fields and Foster. The mayor explained that it was about their “inability to work productively together.”
Foster focused on three key issues– port security, disputes over a real-estate deal surrounding the port headquarters and Fields’s travel expenses. The mayor said that he was not accusing the harbor commissioner of wrongdoing, but he did describe occasions over the past three years in which he clashed with Fields.
“Mr. Fields has been immune to suggestions or advice,” Foster said. “Indeed, he is often dismissive. It is in the City’s and the Harbor’s interest that he be removed.” The mayor declared he had no confidence that Fields could lead the Port.
“I have hoped there was a better way,” Foster concluded. “There was not.”
He described how Fields refused to cooperate on a matter of port security. Foster did not offer details, but he suggested that the issue had to do with command structure and integration between port-security officials and the Long Beach Police Department.
The mayor also brought up another dispute in which Fields supported a proposed real-estate purchase of the World Trade Center downtown without an appraisal.
Foster lastly addressed the question over Fields’s travel expenses. Foster estimated that over approximately two years, Fields has spent in excess of $100,000. He said that this is an amount that is more than double his nearest colleague’s on the Harbor Commission who had spent $40,000 on travel.
City Auditor Laura Doud is expected to provide a report of travel expenditures in January.
Foster said that the Council had capped travel by each board member at $40,000 as part of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. The mayor added that even though the Council voted to approve the cap, the Harbor Commission president traveled to Europe in September and then to Europe and Asia in October.
Foster said he was troubled by Fields’s decision to travel that much when critical construction projects like the Middle Harbor and the Gerald Desmond Bridge were underway and that there were already financial and management challenges.
“And I bring it up only as a reminder that the work of a part-time harbor commission is fundamentally to exercise a check or oversight on the professional staff and create policies for staff to implement,” Foster said. “They need to focus on finance, construction and staff oversight… It is not their job to do much beyond that, and that it is very difficult to do from the dais, never mind when you are travelling all over the world.”
Fields, who had been sitting in the Council Chamber, saw the situation differently. He was given the opportunity to defend his record that night. He pointed to his 15 years of service to the city in various commission positions, including his time on the Harbor Commission.
“Every decision I have made as a member of the Commission has been based on what is best for the Port and the City,” Fields told the Council. “And that has been my record throughout all my service here in the city and all of the commissions I’ve served on.”
Fields said that Foster’s estimate of $100,000 in travel expenses had never been stated before. He asked that the Council delay their decision until the city auditor releases her report. He added that he never had a blemish on his record.
“I know that the auditor’s report will show I’ve done nothing wrong and not only that I’ve done nothing wrong, all my travel has been done in the best interest of the Port,” Fields told the Council. “So once again, I ask, ‘What’s the rush to judgment?’”
Fields specifically addressed the controversy over his international travel, explaining that the trips he took with the former executive director resulted in $14 million in the first six months. He said that on a recent trip to Copenhagen, he met with a major new prospective customer.
The embattled Harbor Commission president stated that the mayor’s recommendation to remove him from office jeopardized almost $20 million that the Long Beach Port gives to the city annually.
“This unfortunately makes us look like a three-ring circus,” Fields said.
He described how this process has damaged the reputation the Port enjoyed with its customers. Fields’s arguments carried weight with John McLaurin, who serves as the president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. The association represents a number of port customers, including some who conduct business and have leases at the Port of Long Beach. McLaurin expressed the association’s support of Fields. He said that this controversy is happening at a time when competition is beginning to intensify among the North American ports and when the Port of Long Beach is looking to replace staff and management. He stressed that the association wants the Port to succeed.
“We don’t view the removal of Thomas Fields as a path to that success,” McLaurin concluded. “Again, we understand the issues are serious. The decisions are hard, and there are no upsides this evening.”
McLaurin’s support was echoed by a number of residents and other personal contacts of Fields, as one-by-one, at least a dozen people defended Fields during the public-comment time.
“This is absolutely no way to treat a respected member of the Long Beach community who has volunteered his time, talent and creative energy to serve this city in good faith,” said Dr. Lydia Hollie, a 9th-district resident. “Any consideration of removal of Mr. Fields runs counter to what is fair, just and right.”
Others, like Charles Brown, asked Fields and Foster to work out their differences. Brown is a representative of the Long Beach African-American Convening Committee, which promotes leadership in the black community. Brown noted Fields’s special position as a high-level black official in Long Beach.
“That’s important,” Brown said, “but what’s more important is the issue of ethics. How can we look at this with an ethical standpoint and say…‘Have we done all we could for a man who has actually served this city well?’”
Former 8th District Councilmember Rae Gabelich passionately criticized Foster’s actions to remove Fields. Before the decision was made, Gabelich warned the councilmembers that their votes “send a message” to the people that states “that this bully manipulation is okay.”
She urged the Council to ask questions and take a position after they receive an answer.
“This action is a witch hunt that has not been substantiated,” Gabelich concluded. “Changing the direction of the Port of Long Beach is not done at the dais with a politically induced vote.”
“I think we’re sending the wrong message to those interested in volunteering in our city as commissioners who are willing to spend their time to serve the city,” Austin added. “I think we’re sending the wrong message to the hard-working men and women of the Port of Long Beach. This is an embarrassment…And thus far, I’ve heard nothing compelling to convince me that this move is in the best interest of our city or this port.”
His colleague, Schipske, agreed with Austin. The 5th-district councilmember proceeded to pick apart Foster’s arguments, claiming that Foster is making serious allegations when he is criticizing Fields over travel expenses, real-estate issues and port security. She particularly blasted the mayor with regard to travel expenses. Schipske said that the mayor himself traveled to Europe and that other councilmembers traveled to Peru and India at a time when the City also had economic problems. She recommended waiting for the auditor’s report before anyone casts aspersions about travel.
The 5th-district councilmember then suggested that the mayor has another reason to remove Fields from office quickly.
“The only thing that Mr. Fields stands in the way of is [that] he’s the chair of the search committee for the new executive director,” Schipske said. “I’ve received numerous calls this week when this word came out that you, Mr. Mayor, actually have someone picked out for both the executive director and the deputy director and that you need Mr. Fields off the executive search committee and that this would accomplish it.”
Foster immediately fired back at Schipske.
“This is patently false,” Foster said. “You [should] be ashamed of yourself for repeating that.”
Schipske didn’t back down.
“Well, you should be ashamed of yourself for what you’ve put this Council and this City through,” she said. A number of audience members cheered Schipske, occasionally interrupting her with shouts and applause.
“You don’t govern by bullying,” Schipske concluded. “You’ve done it to me. You’ve done it to many people in this city. And I think we’ve had enough.”
Foster denied that he has a candidate for either position of executive director or deputy director. “That’s not the way I run my office,” he said, explaining that the Port makes that decision.
Foster had his own supporters on the Council dais. Before she voted in favor of ousting Fields, 2nd District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal said that there is much that couldn’t be said in the public realm. She explained there was much that could only be discussed in closed session, adding that “not all of us knows the details.”
Lowenthal said that her decision to support the motion to remove Fields is based on the issues that the mayor had raised and that this isn’t about an individual who served the city for 15 years. She also criticized Schipske.
“You too have cast aspersions tonight that are unfounded,” Lowenthal told Schipske. “And I don’t ask you to recall them, but I will ask you to check your facts before you do that. It’s inappropriate and really quite unbecoming.”
Councilmember Gary DeLong also defended the mayor’s recommendation.
“I think the question before us is ‘Does the mayor have the right to remove a commissioner that he has lost confidence in and cannot work with in a cooperative manner?’” the 3rd-district councilmember said. “And, candidly, I believe that he does.”
Six councilmembers sided with the mayor in the final vote tally. Schipske, Austin and 9th District Councilmember Steven Neal were the dissenting votes.
City Attorney Parkin confirmed after the meeting that Fields’s term in office ended that night and there is no avenue for Fields to appeal the Council’s decision. ß