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Retirement of Port of LA's top executive surprises harbor commissioner

Geraldine Knatz will retire as Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles at the end of the year.
Geraldine Knatz will retire as Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles at the end of the year.
Tim Rue

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Remember when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the heads of all city departments would have to reapply for their jobs? Geraldine Knatz , the top executive at  the Port of Los Angeles was one of those managers.  On Thursday, the Mayor's office announced that Knatz will retire at the end of the year after almost eight years running the country's busiest port.  

"After 42 years of dedicated service to the maritime industry here in San Pedro Bay, I have decided to retire as Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles and pursue other interests," Knatz said in a statement, adding that she would stay on through the end of the year to support a smooth transition.  "I am proud of the many accomplishments that our team made at the Port of Los Angeles during my tenure," Knatz said.   

But the initial announcement came in a brief statement from Mayor Garcetti's office: 

"I thank Dr. Knatz for her service to Los Angeles. My agenda for the Port is focused on maximizing its economic impact and minimizing its environmental impact to build stronger neighborhoods in the Harbor area and across Los Angeles," Garcetti said.

Economics and the environment have been the pressing issues at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for years, and economist and businessman Sung Won Sohn believes Knatz has been effective on both fronts. So he wasn't expecting her departure. 

"I was caught by surprise," says Sohn, who serves on the Los Angeles Harbor Board of Commissioners. "Hopefully, we’ll get a replacement that is as good as she is."

Whoever that is, Sohn says, it will be a challenge to keep the Port of L.A. on top in the increasingly intense competition between ports for international cargo traffic.  Los Angeles is up against West Coast ports in Seattle, Oakland, and its neighbor, Long Beach to get big ships to dock to drop off or pick up big containers of goods.  Sohn acknowledged that while Los Angeles is still the number one container port in the U.S., it isn't as dominant as it used to be. 

"Recently, we have seen some slowdown," he says.  "So I guess the key question is how do we go about maintaining and hopefully increasing our market share, especially when the Panama Canal opens in 2014."  That expansion of the Panama Canal could be a game-changer for global cargo traffic.  

Cargo volumes have dropped in recent months at the Port of L.A., while they've been climbing in Long Beach, as some shippers have shifted operations  between the two ports. 

Before then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Geraldine Knatz to head the Port of Los Angeles, she served as managing director and second in command at the Port of Long Beach, where she worked for more than two decades. But she started her career in the maritime industry at the Port of LA as an environmental scientist.

Knatz pushed the Port of L.A.'s Clean Trucks program, which restricts the types of trucks that can haul goods in and out of the port.  But the trucking industry challenged the program and won some roll-backs in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

While Knatz stays on at the Port until the end of the year, City Engineer Gary Lee Moore will serve as Acting General Manager until Mayor Garcetti appoints a permanent one.