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Long Beach Commission Appointments

The Fundamental Question For Councilmembers:
Do Commissioners Serve At The Pleasure Of The Mayor?

By George Economides - Publisher's Perspective

November 18, 2013 – As the Business Journal went to press, the political maneuvering surrounding Mayor Bob Foster’s recommendation to oust Long Beach Harbor Commission President Thomas Fields continues. One of the latest to enter the fray is the former mayor, Beverly O’Neill.

However, the issue is not as complicated as many people – and the media – are making it out to be. The fundamental question – one councilmembers must ask themselves – is this: Do city commissioners serve at the pleasure of the mayor? The Business Journal believes they do. If councilmembers agree, then the mayor’s request should be supported unanimously at tomorrow night’s city council meeting.

Set aside the politics, the impact on the port or what a good guy Thomas Fields is – and he is a good guy, and he has done yeomen work for the city through his service on a number of commissions over the past two decades. If the city’s top elected official – or the nation’s or the state’s, for that matter – wants a commissioner or other appointee to step down, it should be done.

On November 11, Foster issued a statement for Fields’ removal, citing City Charter Section 510, which provides the mayor the right to remove a commissioner with two-thirds approval of councilmembers – or six votes if all nine councilmembers are present. Foster did not indicate a reason for his recommendation, nor does the charter require he state a reason. If the mayor’s request were approved, it would mark the first-ever removal of a sitting harbor commissioner. Foster appointed Fields to the five-member board in 2009. Fields’ term runs through 2015.

According to Fields, who visited with the Business Journal on Thursday, November 14, after returning from a two-week-long port-arranged trip that took him and several harbor department personnel to the Far East and Denmark, he spoke with the mayor on Friday, November 8 (Saturday in California). Fields, who was in Japan at the time, said that Foster told him he wanted to take the port in a new direction and asked Fields to resign. Fields said “no.”

Since saying no to the mayor, Fields has taken his case to the press, to individual councilmembers and to his supporters who are rallying behind him. Evidently, O’Neill is one of those supporters. Fields, however, is an appointed commissioner, not an elected official, yet he is putting on a full-court press as if the people of Long Beach elected him.

Letter From Former Mayor

O’Neill’s letter – sent to the mayor, councilmembers, harbor commissioners, the city attorney, city auditor, city manager and the interim port executive director, Al Moro – is out of character for her. During her 12 years as mayor, she always made an effort to avoid controversy. Yet, she writes: “Today we are facing destructive actions that are threatening Long Beach’s economic strength – by airing our internal squabbles to the world. . . . The tenants of the world will not continue to work with an unstable local government.”

Unstable local government? That is a very strong statement coming from a former mayor who always attempted to put a positive spin on the worst of news. She concluded her letter with this: “This situation tells the world that Long Beach is a city that cannot take care of its own problems. Our stellar reputation could be gone overnight, destroying the outstanding work of over 50 years. I love Long Beach and I implore you to end this internal squabble.”

If O’Neill is as concerned about the image of the city as she writes, then why didn’t she first pick up the phone and call Foster to personally express her concerns? Instead, she chose a more combative approach, giving the letter wide dissemination. If anything, her letter fuels the fire because port customers throughout the world are likely reading it.

Fields Shares Conversation With Mayor

Fields told the Business Journal that the call from Foster went as follows: “After we got over the pleasantries, he said to me, ‘I have made a decision. I want to take the port in a new direction.’ Okay. And he said, ‘Because I am taking the port in a new direction, I am asking you for your letter of resignation.’ I then asked why, and he said, ‘Because I need to take the port in a new direction.’ And I refused, and his comment to me was: ‘You don’t have to give me an answer now. You can wait a couple of days. I’ll wait for you to get back to me.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have to wait. I’m not going to resign.’ The end of the conversation was [Foster saying] ‘Okay, I’m taking it to the council.’”

Asked if he would sue, Fields’ response was: “No. Here is what I’ve said. The way this thing has unraveled, because if it was just a matter of me being kicked off, fine. It has become – my reputation, my name has been dragged through the mud. I’m not suing because I’m getting kicked off . . . Frankly, I would be better off not being on the board because I could start to make some money.”

Fields has nothing of which to be ashamed. For the past 20 years, he has represented the city well as a harbor commissioner and as a planning commissioner, as a member of the former redevelopment agency and economic development commission, and as a member of the Shipyard Reuse Advisory Commission. However, he should accept the mayor’s request and resign.