Long Beach Harbor Commission President Tom Fields Removed From Position By Council Vote

Long Beach City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday night to remove Harbor Commission President Thomas Fields, a confirmation of a recommendation made by Mayor Bob Foster, with whom he has butted heads since taking the position four years ago.

Foster, who appointed Fields in 2009 for a six-year term, said he made the unprecedented recommendation reluctantly, explaining at the council meeting that it was not done because of one incident, but because of a series of issues–from security to property to travel–that have accumulated over the last three years. 

“It’s regrettable that we are here tonight where we are but I feel strongly that it is in the long term interest of the City and the Harbor Department that Mr. Fields be removed,” said Foster. “I have lost confidence in Mr. Fields’ willingness to harmonize the interests of Long Beach with that of the Harbor Department.”

Some of the incidents that Foster cited in his seven-minute statement were related to issues discussed in closed sessions, however Fields has most recently come under scrutity from the mayor and Councilmember DeLong for his travel expenses, which public records show is nearly double those of his fellow commissioners. Even after an audit was ordered on Fields’ travel in September and council approved a cap on commissioner travel for this year’s budget, Foster said that Fields continued to travel to Europe and Asia when he believes he should have been focusing on the critical construction currently occuring at the Port.

Foster also said that unlike some of his fellow commissioners, Fields has been immune to suggestions or advice, and is often dismissive.

Fields, in a six-minute rebuttal of the recommendation for his removal, defended his travel expenses as necessary for securing new Port business and said the motion to remove him “made no sense” and was an offense to his 15 years of public service on various commissions throughout the city.

“Every decision I’ve made as a member of the Commission has been based on what is best for the Port and the City,” Fields said. “I have never ever violated any oath and never had a blemish on my record. And to find this placed upon my doorstep, I take it with great sadness.”

Fields also urged the council to delay the decision to remove him until an audit of his travel expenses is released in January, something also suggested by two of the dissenting councilmembers, Gerrie Schipske and Al Austin.

For nearly an hour, supporters of Fields spoke during public comment including former councilmembers Rae Gabelich and Tonia Reyes-Uranga as well as Port lessees and members of the transportation industry who warned against removal of a Harbor Commissioner, which would make the Port look even more unstable in the eyes of the shipping industry.

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With Fields now ousted, there are two openings in management at the nation’s second-largest port. A search for a new executive director has been underway since the summer when Chris Lytle left to take the helm at the Port of Oakland.

“This action is not in the best interest of the City and the Port,” Fields said before the vote. “This unfortunately makes us look like a three ring circus and I don’t take that lightly. We are at a critical junction in the history of this port and this move will undermine that.”

Fields, Schipske and others saw the removal as a bullying tactic from Mayor Foster, who only received the authority to remove Harbor Comissioners through Proposition A in 2007. He needed a two-thirds vote from the council to remove Fields. 

“If we do not agree with the mayor at all times, do we all face the prospect of being removed?” said Fields. “How many will serve on commissions if that’s what you’re saying? We accept and celebrate differences in this city…I believe sooner or later we will return to a time when those differences of opinion will be respected and accepted as part of the democratic process.”

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.