The 100-year-old model for the Port of Seattle still makes good political sense

A veteran observer of ports around the country argues that elected port commissioners, as in Seattle and Tacoma, are far preferable to ports that must serve the wishes of mayors or other politicians.

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Container cargo on Seattle's waterfront

A veteran observer of ports around the country argues that elected port commissioners, as in Seattle and Tacoma, are far preferable to ports that must serve the wishes of mayors or other politicians.

The American Association of Port Authorities is in town this week for its annual convention. The convention coincides with the Port of Seattle’s 100th Anniversary and enactment of the legislation giving the state’s citizens the right to create local port districts. Conferees are exchanging ideas on the need for harbor investments, the impact of the Panama Canal widening, increased international competition, and opportunities to reach emerging markets.

One item not on the agenda is Washington’s port governance structure.  But watch for port executives from around the country to cast curious eyes at the 100-year-old law that made our ports possible.  Today, Washington's port governance structure is the envy of many in the nation, even though some local officials aspire to change it.  Puget Sound ports have independently elected commissioners who set policy and priorities.  Elsewhere in the country, port commissioners are appointed by mayors or governors.

In turn, the governance of Washington’s ports may be one of the competitive advantages that have made it possible for Seattle and Tacoma to compete with the mega-container ports of New York/New Jersey and Los Angeles/Long Beach. 

Port commissioners in Seattle and Tacoma are directly accountable to voters.  That keeps them singularly focused on their core missions — creating jobs, being good neighbors by encouraging companies to improve their environmental performance, and restoring polluted industrial land so it can be put back into productive use. 

In California, port commissioners are appointed by mayors, and the ports are run like any department at city hall.  Instead of a sharp focus on investing to create jobs, California ports have become the extension of the political ambitions of local politicians.

Commissioners who are beholden to mayors for their appointments are unable or unwilling to express independent views.  Port of Seattle commissioners were early and consistent advocates for investing in a Viaduct replacement solution to keep that vital freight transportation corridor working.  Seattle port commissioners even committed to making a substantial cash contribution toward the project.  It’s hard to imagine commissioners appointed by Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn, an opponent of the tunnel solution, having the freedom to take such an independent stand — let alone to commit financial resources.

This year, some commissioners are up for re-election in both Tacoma and Seattle.  Every four years commissioners have to defend their records, their priorities, and their performance.  That’s a good thing. They are held accountable by the public.  In other ports, commissioners just have to keep the local mayor happy.   

Washington’s port governance structure has worked well now for 100 years, and Seattle and Tacoma rank among the world’s finest container ports. Even so, there are those who want to change this structure: some want a statewide port authority; others want to combine Seattle, Everett and Tacoma; others would just merge Seattle and Tacoma.  

A merged mega-port would likely require an appointed commission, limiting local control and accountability. But citizens like their local ports. They like having commissioners focused on economic development and being able to hold them accountable.

I think the 100-year-old model in Washington works best.  Ports in Washington are fortunate to have port commissions here that are focused on creating jobs. So while port executives from around the country are here discussing a number of issues, we encourage them to visit the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and take home lessons about how best to govern ports.  Oh, and wish our port governance model a happy 100th birthday. 


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