Wanted: FMC commissioners
In 2008, the Federal Maritime Commission formed a strategic plan for fiscal years 2010-2015, and restated its mission: 'to foster a fair, efficient and reliable international ocean transportation system and to protect the public from unfair and deceptive practices.'
However, this stated mission may be only as good as the paper it's written on without a sufficient number of politically appointed commissioners to lead the agency.
Since earlier this year, the five-person commission has been operating with three commissioners and no chairman. Agency business still got done, although with far less debate and differing views from this small commissioner pool.
Now that long-time Commissioner and past-Chairman Hal Creel announced that he will leave the agency at the end of his term on June 30, the commission is now down to two: Acting Chairman Joseph Brennan and Commissioner Rebecca Dye.
Brennan, a former Maine governor, was initially nominated to serve on the commission by President Clinton in 1999, and re-nominated to serve a second term by President Bush in 2004. Accepting the appointment of acting chairman, Brennan said in a statement that he wants the FMC 'to meet all of its regulatory responsibilities while always trying to minimize the cost to regulated entities and the American taxpayer.'
While the Obama administration has many big issues facing it, including a crippled economy, health care reform, and ongoing strife in the Middle East and North Korea, it would be a disservice to the agency's staff and the shipping industry to allow the FMC and its activities to suddenly languish. With a two-person commission, all decisions must be unanimous ' creating a potential logjam.
Fortunately, President Obama in early June nominated Richard A. Lidinsky Jr., a 35-year maritime industry veteran with previous Capitol Hill and FMC experience, to serve as FMC commissioner. His nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.
During the past year, the commission has continued to monitor the international liner trades, keeping an eye on agreement activities related to ocean common carriers and marine terminal operators:
' The commission became embroiled in the competition debate associated with the Clean Air Action Plan developed by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. On Oct. 31, 2008, the agency challenged the plan in U.S. District Court on the basis that it violated the anti-competitive standards of the Shipping Act. A judge denied the FMC's request for preliminary injunction. The agency reviewed its options and requested to dismiss the case on June 16.
' The Transportation Stabilization Agreement backed off a proposed amendment to jointly rationalize capacity due to the FMC's inquiries and the industry's outrage to the plan.
' The FMC continues to monitor the European Union's progress to end antitrust immunity for ocean liner operations in the European trades and how the commission itself may eventually revisit liner carrier antitrust immunity still allowed in the U.S. trades.
Again, these are important issues that will only fester, while the FMC waits to fill commission vacancies.
Creel will surely be missed at the FMC, both for his thoughtful decision-making and steady hand as commissioner and longest serving chairman from 1996 to 2002.
The South Carolina-born attorney, who ultimately took an interest in admiralty law and Washington politics, was actively engaged in FMC and industry matters. He was never shy about giving speeches about the FMC to vocal industry groups and listened to their regulatory concerns. Creel often took a balanced approach to regulatory decisions by thoroughly weighing the positions of the wide-ranging industry constituency of liner carriers, shippers, freight forwarders and non-vessel-operating common carriers, as well as those of his fellow commissioners.
'The commission is comprised of five distinct personalities, but we're all dependent on each other. It's been a collegial body overall,' Creel said. As for working with the ocean shipping industry, 'it's a matter of getting people to talk and not demonizing each other.'
Creel first publicly demonstrated his leadership at the commission in 1997 when he ordered the closure of U.S. ports to Japanese-flag liner carriers in response to Japan's unwillingness to reform onerous port practices toward U.S.-flag carriers. The decision put the agency on the front page of many major newspapers and the Japanese waterfront quickly changed its ways.
'This action showed the importance of the FMC's role as an independent agency,' Creel said. 'We're able to make our decisions independent of the administration.'
Undoubtedly he helped shape the current state of the U.S. ocean shipping industry with his input to the 1998 Ocean Shipping Reform Act and its confidential service contract provisions.
Creel describes himself as 'being open to ideas and hearing people out' before making a judgment. 'If someone asks me why I did something, I need to be able to explain to them why I did it.'
He said he 'caught some heat' from the industry about why he sought the injunction against the Los Angeles-Long Beach Clean Air Action Plan. 'I looked at the facts and law, and made a decision,' Creel said.
While a huge fan of the Obama administration, Creel believes it's time for a change. 'I'm going to miss the analytical part of the work, looking at different sides of an argument to come up with a decision, but after nearly 15 years in the same job it's time to repot myself,' he said.
He will also miss working with the FMC's staff. He proudly pointed to the 'The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government' 2009 survey results, which consistently placed the FMC among the long list of small agencies in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots for strategic management, effective leadership, pay and benefits, and teamwork.
Creel, 52, said he'll have plenty to do in his post-commission career. The published author and small farm operator also has no intentions of leaving the maritime industry. He has accepted a job with government relations firm Alcalde & Fay in Arlington, Va., and will work on issues involving the cruise industry, as well as attracting new clients to the company.
'This time I will be looking at legislation and regulation from a different perspective on behalf of a sector of the industry that I've always regarded as vibrant and exciting. I'm really looking forward to it,' he said. ' Chris Gillis