Port of Seattle: The gang that can't shoot straight

Commissioner Rob Holland's sudden resignation caps a year of pratfalls at the Port. The selection process is flawed, even as the stakes get higher at this key institution.
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Port of Seattle

Commissioner Rob Holland's sudden resignation caps a year of pratfalls at the Port. The selection process is flawed, even as the stakes get higher at this key institution.

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.

The six finalists seemed to have more to do with the commissioners’ own political positioning for the races in 2013, when John Creighton, Tom Albro, and the two vacancies are on the ballot, than in finding a really worthy new member. The current board, four men, three from Seattle (John Creighton lives in Bellevue), felt the need to have a woman, so all six finalists are women. They wanted to fend off the Seattle-centric criticism, so while three of the finalists live in Seattle, they all have clear suburban connections. My suspicion is that the two commissioners most likely to face tough races in 2013 (Holland before his decision to resign and Creighton) didn’t want to validate strong challengers by putting them in the list of finalists. (They may rue that insult.)

A famous quip by former Port Commissioner Pat Davis observed that the Port Commissioner's job “is not a springboard, but a gang plank.” (Rob Holland is the latest illustration.) If it is usually a political dead end, it is also a tough job to get. You have to run a county-wide campaign, raising at least $100,000 for the race. In the case of the Tarleton vacancy, you have to run in 2013 and again in 2015. You have no staff to help you assess the very staff-driven Port business. Special interests (labor, shippers) exert heavy influence in these little-noticed races with low vote counts. Sensitive to criticism about junkets, you have to post all your expenses on the Port website, and you can’t even fly those long trips to Asia in business class.

The result was a fairly weak bunch of applicants and an even weaker group of finalists. Some, such as Stephanie Bowman, Nancy Wyatt, Claudia Kauffman and Vicki Orrico, may not be looking for a springboard, but at least a way to bounce back from recent electoral defeats. Courtney Gregoire, the former governor’s daughter, is an intriguing new political figure, but she has a fulltime job as a Microsoft attorney and a brand new baby.  Few look like they could hit the ground running, as the commission wanted, or even mount a very good campaign for election in the coming fall. The likely picks, according to insiders, are Bowman with her experience at the Port of Tacoma and broad political backing, and Gregoire, with her winning name to help in raising money and winning votes. Orrico, a dynamic pro-transit planner who has sought a seat on the Bellevue City Council, is another possible choice.

Ideally, the Port, which is a hugely important business in the region and for the state, would draw people with civic stature and the time to really work at the job. The Port is very much run by its powerful CEO and a large, protective staff. The commission largely tends to provide political cover, diplomatic schmoozing and deciding when a new CEO needs to be hired. On occasion, a commissioner such as Paul Schell or Paige Miller is able to think about long-term strategy.

Such strategic vision is badly needed. The Port is being squeezed out by all the commercial growth and rising land costs in Seattle, with ports in Tacoma, Vancouver, B.C. and Prince Rupert, B.C., ready to pick up the shippers Seattle loses. Other regions tend to create broad, combined ports, but Tacoma is far too suspicious of Seattle and far too wary of King County politics to be a dance partner. Jan Drago suggests the idea of a five-port Port of Puget Sound (Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Everett, and Bellingham), arguing that diluting Seattle’s voting strength this way could lull Tacoma into joining. (Dream on!) As it is, Seattle cultivates the big Asian shippers, brings them to Seattle, and then watches land-rich Tacoma steal them away by undercutting Seattle's leases.

Seattle’s high land values mean that shipping in Seattle has to be subsidized. That creates the dilemma of where you get the money for all the capital improvements ports need. Particularly costly cities need to stay ahead of the competition by expensive upgrades for greater productivity on valuable land, but where is Seattle supposed to get that money, particularly with the Port of Seattle unpopular with the voters?

Indeed, when the Port sounded the alarm about how much the SoDo Arena and surrounding developments would cripple freight movement to the nearby piers, it was painfully apparent that the Port had few allies. City Hall was more worried about angering Sonics fans than losing one of its largest employment sectors. Labor and business groups were split. Even the Port, which has a big stake in tourism through the airport, had to be coy about its opposition to two new sports teams.

As things are going, we are about to “do a San Francisco,” kicking out the port to another city (Oakland, in the case of the Bay Area) because of land values and urban lifestyle pressures.

The best solution to this drift that I have heard comes from former Port CEO Dick Ford, who notes that most American ports are run by commissioners appointed by the governor. Why not do that here, with the protection of having such appointees subject to recall by King County voters? As it is, Ford says, the people you most want to be port commissioners are least likely to run, but some of them, if appointed like U.W. Regents, might agree.

This suggests that wasting the opportunity to appoint two high-quality instant incumbents now would be a crime. This is the way in which some persons of stature, particularly if there are two going in at once, could agree to rise to the pressing civic need.  The job may lack staff and adequate pay, but it does have one distinct advantage, as described by commissioner Bill Bryant: “In what other job can you have a big impact on transportation, on jobs and on the environment simply by getting two others to agree with you? Sure beats trying to line up 150 legislators in Olympia!”  


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