This has not been a great year for the Port of Seattle. The latest pratfall is the sudden resignation yesterday (Feb. 13) of Commissioner Rob Holland, coming on the heels of an embarrassing article in the Seattle Times detailing all the irregularities, anger, and clumsiness of this particular commissioner. Now the five-person commission has two vacancies to fill. In keeping with the year of pratfalls, the Port did a poor job in its first round of applicants. That vacancy was left when Commissioner Gael Tarleton, an admired professional, resigned after getting elected to the Legislature.
Alas, rather than learning from that flawed process, Port Commission president Tom Albro says the remaining three commissioners now intend to appoint two from the pool of six finalist candidates for the initial open seat.
You could be excused for concluding that the Port is an agency that can’t shoot straight. In the past year there has been the heavy criticism of CEO Tay Yoshitani for taking a highly-paid board position with Expeditors International, raising appearances of conflicts of interest. Then the Port failed to mount much of an opposition to the SoDo Arena plans, despite the near-mortal threat to its freight mobility from the nearby piers.
It’s a bad time for the Port to be reeling. Yoshitani’s contract expires in 2014 and he is widely expected to announce his retirement soon. So the Commissioners, at least two of them new to the job, will have the critical task of finding a good new leader, at a time when the Port’s national reputation is tottering. Shipping lines are hard pressed by the recession in global trade, so they are driving concessionary leases with weakened Ports. (The new Hanjin lease with Seattle is a vivid example of how much subsidy we now have to give.) Other West Coast ports, with better rail access and cheaper land, are sharpening their knives over Seattle’s problems.
There may be a better way to run this railroad, and I’ll describe a few suggestions later. But first, what goes on with the Port vacancies?
Holland’s decision to resign, as of March 15, is really a blessing. He was most unhappy at the job, which pays little ($500 a month) and takes up 15-30 hours a week, making it difficult to find other paying work. He feuded publicly with Tarleton and was badly isolated and resentful. He probably wouldn’t get re-elected. So clearing that seat is an advantage, assuming the Port finds a better way to select good candidates. (That Holland was elected, four years ago, with strong labor and environmental support, says something about how little attention is paid to these races.)
The first round of seeking an appointee to the Tarleton seat, currently in progress, was not encouraging, and the final group of six is weak in high-profile civic leaders. How did that happen, and what does this say about the Port’s political skills?
The first mistake was making all applicants’ names public, which discourages people for whom that publicity would create problems with their present employer and for whom public rejection would be painful. Given this clumsy process, several highly regarded civic leaders, who were pushed to apply, chose to take a pass. Next in the process came the three-minute speeches before the commissioners for all 29 applicants — a sure way to make a superficial impression.
After that ignominious session, the four commissioners adopted a consensus-seeking procedure that seems to have squeezed out the three clearly qualified candidates: Jan Drago, the civic leader and longtime Seattle Councilmember; Lloyd Robinson, former general counsel of the Port of Portland; and Bob Sternoff, a major political leader of suburban cities. According to one commissioner’s account, each commissioner put forth six preferred names, plus four others. In the discussion of that list, the commissioners ruled out candidates who had only one backer; and then talked over the nominees for an hour or so. The commissioners' political naivete did the rest.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!