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L.A. Port Director Resigns

Larry Keller steps down under pressure from city officials, clean-air activists and community leaders. Hahn's aides say he wasn't forced out.

September 18, 2004|Patrick McGreevy and Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writers

Under pressure from city officials and community leaders, Larry Keller resigned Friday as executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, which has been in turmoil amid investigations into contracting practices and an outcry from residents over air pollution.

Keller, who headed the harbor for seven years, presided over its growth into the nation's largest port, but had come under sustained criticism for his leadership in recent years.

In a statement, Mayor James K. Hahn praised Keller on Friday, but just a month ago, in a major embarrassment to the port director, Hahn rejected the port's plan to curb air pollution. The mayor's aides said Friday that he had not forced Keller out and was not dissatisfied with his performance.

But City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the harbor area and had called on Keller to resign more than a year ago, welcomed the announcement.

"It gives us an opportunity to really get leadership at the port that is more in line with the mayor's direction and the community's direction of having a neighborhood-friendly port," said Hahn, who is the mayor's sister and, like him, lives in San Pedro near the port.

The news won praise from critics who have long blamed Keller for what they see as the port's arrogance and failure to listen to community concerns about pollution and unbridled growth.

"The paradigm is shifting -- at least, we pray it is," said San Pedro community leader Noel Park, who has wrestled with the seaport for years over development projects.

Some in the shipping industry defended Keller on Friday.

Capt. M.H.K. "Manny" Aschemeyer, executive director of the Marine Exchange, which monitors port traffic, said: "I thought he was a fine manager, and much of the waterfront is perplexed and somewhat dismayed over the political situation that has caused his ouster."

The announcement from the mayor's office, at 4:44 p.m. Friday, came as Keller was being hammered from all sides: from city auditors, from federal and county prosecutors looking into port contracting practices, and from clean-air activists who have lambasted him for what they see as a zeal for economic progress at the cost of human health.

Keller has been engulfed in a mushrooming controversy over the role of the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, as residents near the ports and area freeways grow angry about diesel pollution and truck traffic.

He also clashed in recent months with members of the mayoral-appointed harbor commission, who had been holding closed-door meetings to evaluate his performance.

"I think the harbor commissioners were beginning to feel at odds with him, as I did, and I think he saw the writing on the wall," Janice Hahn said.

On Friday, port officials focused on the positive, saying Keller helped make the port the sixth-largest in the world.

"Larry arrived at a critical time at the port," said harbor commission President Nick Tonsich. "His maritime industry expertise helped establish us as the leading Pacific gateway to the U.S."

But a source close to the shipping industry said he understood that the mayor had been pressuring Keller to leave.

"The mayor blamed him for some of the bad relationships with the surrounding community. The pollution, the traffic and the noise. They never felt he was on the team," the source said. Deputy Mayor Doane Liu said the mayor did not pressure Keller to quit. "We were in the process of making some major changes in what the port was doing and Larry was on board with that," he said.

Liu said the city would launch a national search for a port director and said that Chief Operating Officer Bruce Seaton would temporarily assume the duties of the executive director.

Mayor Hahn, in his statement, praised Keller, who was paid $278,000 annually. "Larry's tenure saw the Port of Los Angeles grow into America's largest maritime gateway and the prime economic generator in the Southland," he said. "I wish him well in all his future endeavors."

Keller did not return calls for comment, but said in a letter of resignation that he gave a "great deal of thought" to his decision to quit. He made no mention of his tense relations with commissioners, the investigations or his stormy relationship with area residents.

Keller started at the port in April 1996 as chief operating officer after 20 years with Maersk, a major international shipping line. In 1997, Mayor Richard Riordan named him the port's executive director.

For the last three years, the port has held the record for the highest U.S. container volume and, this year, the port's China Shipping pier became the first terminal to allow container ships to turn off their diesel engines and plug into shore power, reducing the amount of pollution from the vessels.

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