Just in time
for the fall election, the Port of Seattle
has managed to generate a juicy controversy. That means voters normally apathetic about the port and its arcane issues can find a way to engage with this $250 million-a-year business, the least known of the major public entities in the Seattle area. Who knows? Maybe the tempest over recently departed port CEO Mic Dinsmore's aborted retirement package will enlighten the public about the real divisions and policy battles going on.
Dinsmore had been a key figure in the past two decades, a man overly fond of perks and very devoted to glad-handing and handshake deals. He probably should have left about three years earlier, when he was recovering from surgery and was weary with battling the anti-Dinsmore faction of the five-member Port of Seattle Commission
. Instead, he hung on, padding his salary and pushing his luck by continuing to operate a public entity like a private company. Dinsmore is said to have been a terrific salesman who operated by doing deals, cultivating personal ties (particularly in China), and pushing the seaport
and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
to modernize. He lacked a strong strategic sense or top management skills, but he had a lot of influential admirers.
When Dinsmore took over
the top job in the early 1990s, the port had lost its lead in container traffic to Tacoma, had lots of vacant land, and Sea-Tac Airport was badly in need of modernization and was mired in the dispute about the third runway that's finally now being built. Port Commissioner Alec Fisken, who used to cover port matters for Marine Digest
, recalls that the port was so alarmed by loss of the lead over Tacoma that it started looking for a new business model. Instead of being a manager of piers and dockside land primarily, the port recast itself as the prime economic development engine
of the region. It plunged into new ventures, such as development of shoreline conference centers and hotels (urged on by developers and port commissioners such as later-Mayor Paul Schell).
Soon it had built a large bureaucracy. Grand schemes (tourism, biotech) locked up land that smaller businesses wanted to lease. Doing deals with big operators increased the suspicions of cozy, back-room negotiations. Some of the ventures, such as the Odyssey Maritime Museum, proved to be expensive mistakes. Well liked by the Seattle business establishment, Dinsmore was the key to all this. And he was spawning opposition with his brash style and spendthrift ways.
For many years, the commission went along with this largely successful transformation. It might be that backstage deals are the way you really do build infrastructure in a city as process-crazy as Seattle, but you also leave evidence of cozy arrangements that can bring you down with a thud. That appears to be what the retirement package was about. The extra severance payment of $278,000, a benefit only open to employees who have been terminated, was winked and nodded into place. Port Commission President Pat Davis, a stalwart Dinsmore supporter, seems to have alluded to the arrangement in cryptic terms that at least the brand-new commissioners missed, and there may have been an implied quid pro quo to keep Dinsmore on the job, turning down other offers, as the search for his successor went on. Mostly, with the commission badly split over Dinsmore, Davis seems to have dreaded bringing the matter to a public debate and vote, which would have been a doozy.
When the cozy and irregular deal
was discovered by some staffers, it wasn't brought back to Davis, who had signed off on it and might have been persuaded to quietly set the matter right. Instead, the memo she signed "authorizing" the severance (she has no such authority) went right to the media. Dinsmore's toxic deal was nixed by a unanimous vote, Davis was in the doghouse for putting the port in such a bad light, and the issue has a vivid life in the Port Commission races this fall, in which Fisken and Bob Edwards are up for re-election. (Fisken, the chief Dinsmore critic, stoutly denies hearing anything about the deal in any meetings, while Edwards, a Dinsmore ally, changes the subject about what was supposedly said at those meetings and criticises Dinsmore for trying to slip the severance payment through.) All candidates report that the public is plenty riled up about the issue, and Edwards is likely to lose his job over it.
One thing the episode makes clear is that the commission is deeply divided, and the wounds are unlikely to heal anytime soon. Fisken and new commissioner Lloyd Hara are suspicious of the port's secretive ways, as well as the expansive notion of economic development, nourished by the $69 million annual King County property-tax levy they want to scale back. Davis and Edwards have been much more in the Dinsmore camp, leaving the new commission president, John Creighton, as the unpredictable swing vote. If Fisken loses to Bill Bryant, a strong candidate well connected to the business-trade community, the balance could tip back to the Davis faction. If, as seems likely, Edwards loses to Jack Block Jr., a longshoreman with the famous name of his father, who served 27 years on the commission, the balance could tip to the Fisken group. Gael Tarleton, a global strategist at the University of Washington, is another strong challenger to Edwards.
If there is an ongoing split
over an expansive versus narrow port mission, there's another split over the narrow or expansive role of the commission. Davis, for instance, argues that the commission is not meant to be a legislative body, second-guessing the executive and playing politics among various interest groups, but instead should be a governing board like the University of Washington regents, hiring the CEO, forging a common strategy, and then supporting the boss in running the place. Under that more passive formula, the port elected commissioners from the establishment, often Republican, and kept a low profile.
All that began to change about five years ago. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels took a more active interest, in part hoping the port would support his expensive tunnel plan for replacing the waterfront Alaskan Way Viaduct. A blue-green coalition (labor and environmentalists), formed to combine lobbying clout in Olympia, coalesced around some Democratic and reform candidates, electing Fisken and Lawrence Molloy. (The coalition bombed two years ago, when Molloy lost his seat, and is now lower-profile.) The new agenda favors a greener port, preservation of blue-collar manufacturing jobs (rather than new-economy development schemes), protection of neighborhoods from port impacts, and more openness to the public. The job is attracting candidates with ambition for higher office, defying Pat Davis's frequent admonition (which might now apply to her) that "the job has not been a springboard but a gang plank."
Rolling back the Port's large bureaucracy and expansive agenda would seem to be a quixotic quest, absent some serious fiscal crisis. But crusading against big government is often smart politics, particularly in Seattle's populist circles. As economic engines, ports can generate a lot of blame for growth and congestion and pollution. In Los Angeles, for instance, a social justice group takes people on bus tours of what it calls "sacrifice zones" that the Port of Los Angeles has supposedly caused by spewing diesel fumes and clogging traffic. Growth skeptics in Seattle may have found a big, partly symbolic target in the port, particularly since Dinsmore was an active salesman, going out and grabbing large new customers rather than simply renting land to those who call. The danger, of course, is in choking off another economic engine in a city that is more interested in pursuing amenities and becoming a kind of wealthy urban resort.
Similarly, small businesses feel that they are not part of the port's "club" of heavy hitters getting special consideration. Thom McCann, a businessman who says his restaurant, Charley's at Shilshole, was muscled aside by the port's dreams of modernization, is running against Edwards with a remember-the-little-guy campaign. He wants to cut the tax levy, consider consolidation with Tacoma to save duplication of costs, and get back to helping small businesses get decent leases.
McCann admires Alec Fisken, a very interesting new political phenom who might be a harbinger of Seattle politics to come. Fisken, whose day job is policy analyst for Mayor Nickels, comes from an old-shoe Seattle family, worked in journalism, and has a banker's gimlet eye for balance sheets. He has made himself very unpopular with the port staff and the port's major beneficiaries by stubbornly making the case that the port needs to pare back to core functions. Detractors say that Fisken is a "Tim Eyman with a Yale degree," Eyman being the notorious initiative-wielding tax-cutter of the past 15 years in Washington state.
Given all these feuds
, is the commission going to degenerate into something as dysfunctional as the Seattle School Board, where suspicious dissenters took over the majority and went to war with the superintendent? Port veterans fear this is happening, but I'd be surprised. The new port CEO, Tay Yoshitani, is much more cautious and consultative than Dinsmore. Yoshitani will be a tight manager more in the tradition of a public administrator than his predecessor's private-CEO style. The new CEO, deeply experienced in port matters, is universally admired by the commissioners, regardless of their other differences, and he is already finding common ground with them, especially in making the Port and airport into leading "green and clean" operations and girding for coming competition with British Columbia and East Coast ports. In cleaning up the Dinsmore severance package mess, Yoshitani has handled himself well and quickly established a much more meticulous managerial style.
By badly bungling his departure, moreover, Dinsmore has become everybody's favorite scapegoat, and it's always easier to move on when there's a clear someone else to blame. It's unfair, to be sure, since Dinsmore and Davis did a great deal to improve the port and now will endure ungrateful criticism. In politics, a cruel game, it's never a good idea to overstay the political consensus that brought you in.