The new boss at the Port of Seattle is wasting no time

Tay Yoshitani shows a worrisome desire to not air "our dirty laundry," but he's also showing smarts in early moves as CEO of the Port of Seattle.
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Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani.

Tay Yoshitani shows a worrisome desire to not air "our dirty laundry," but he's also showing smarts in early moves as CEO of the Port of Seattle.

So what have we learned so far about Tay Yoshitani, the new chief executive at the Port of Seattle? The early signs are mostly good, based on his handling of a police controversy and a civil war that erupted on the commission. On the plus side, since arriving in March, Yoshitani has wasted no time establishing his authority. He's making decisions, getting messages to port employees, calming commissioners, and sending a signal that he will hold people accountable. He's establishing leadership but not in the overbearing way that critics saw in his predecessor, Mic Dinsmore. On the negative side, Yoshitani shows a desire to keep certain matters out of the public eye. "We don't want our dirty laundry being aired," he wrote in an April 22 e-mail to a commissioner. That's always worrisome in a public official, but especially so at the port, which keeps saying that openness is now the rule. Yoshitani needs to take steps to show where he is on the glasnost question, or baggage from the past and unkept promises from the present will land on him. Yoshitani, 60, was selected unanimously by commissioners who found a candidate almost too good to be true. Though other candidates might have been successful running an airport or a seaport or developing real estate, Yoshitani had done it all at the ports of Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Oakland. For added luster, he's a West Point graduate with an MBA from Harvard. And for pure sentiment, you can't beat the story of his first visit to Seattle, in 1954 at age 7 as an immigrant from Japan. I met Yoshitani in April and found him to be a dramatic departure in style from Dinsmore. Where Yoshitani is understated, outwardly gentle in demeanor, and wears a suit that looks straight from Nordstrom Rack, the burly Dinsmore was a snappy dresser who was assertive, charming, and given to handshakes that almost caused bruising. Yoshitani faces some big issues, such as addressing cost issues at the airport, squeezing better returns from terminal leases, getting clarity around the port's land development ideas, and building confidence in the port's use of the property tax levy. But perhaps his biggest challenge is the commission itself, which is sharply divided over its role and policy issues. This week, Yoshitani did his best to close out a scandal involving nine Port of Seattle police officers caught sending racist and pornographic e-mails using work accounts. The episode gave an impression of a leaderless police department and sloppy oversight by port headquarters, events that predated Yoshitani's arrival. According to Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Kristen Millares Bolt, the port spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside consultants to find what had gone wrong. This week, Yoshitani blamed port leadership but did not name names. He created a new internal oversight commitee to make sure the problem does not re-occur. If anyone at headquarters did wrong, that would be handled in future performance reviews, he said. The other problem involved his bosses, who publicly criticized each other after Yoshitani himself put a hold on a severance package proposed for Dinsmore. The package included 40 weeks of salary, or $261,416, following Dinsmore's last day – in addition to his $107,000 annual pension. (Talk about The Sweet Hereafter.) The Dinsmore deal created weeks of scandal over whether Commissioner Pat Davis had improperly approved it, or whether other commissioners just forgot discussing it. As the controversy flared, commissioner Jack Creighton suggested that Davis resign. Yoshitani sought calm. Writing to Creighton, Yoshitani tried to sell a pathway out of the crisis. First, the deal with Dinsmore was dead. "I think this is pretty easy because I don't see much support. ... I have a motion I hope you all will support. Thirdly, we need to discuss how to keep matters discussed in confidence from getting to the press." Yoshitani wanted an end to the headlines, suggesting that continued rancor would damage the port itself. He even hinted at his own impatience. "If we can't get beyond this point, I don't think the Commission will be able to function going forward." The most interesting part of the e-mail was Yoshitani's attempt to offer Creighton some personal advice and a script for his public statements: John, I think this will be the first real test of your leadership. You are in a position to move the Commission forward in a positive direction or let it spiral out of control. You are the one that can step up and say, "we have differences in our recollections of the meetings, let's agree to disagree on this point, and move forward in a professional and constructive manner." You need to find a way to get past your anger and look to what is in the best interest of the Port. We don't want our dirty laundry being aired. Let's resolve things amongst you give Commissioners. Let's get this thing behind us. He encouraged Creighton to meet in his office with Davis and together "lower the anger before it becomes a feeding frenzy." And they did, pretty much. The Dinsmore controversy faded, though Davis faces a recall campaign because of her actions. A retired judge has been asked to review what happened and suggest reforms. In just a few months, Tay Yoshitani has dealt with two episodes of severe organizational chaos, a governing board ready to implode, and a police department in turmoil. All that in just four months. He wants to see the best and get the best from port employees. That's his style. Give me some time, he seems to say. You can't help but wonder if he's glad he got the job.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.