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Port Panel Chief Has Plenty to Unload

S. David Freeman, brash and innovative, wants to turn the facility into a clean-air showplace.

January 15, 2006|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

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."

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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.

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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.

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