A Perspective on Port PoliticsPermalink +
Sat, Apr 04, 2015, 1:15 pm // John Servais
A bit of perspective on this action by the Port of Bellingham, the entity that has just sold the finest portion of our waterfront for pennies on the dollar to a foreign company of dubious reputation.
Port commissioner Dan Robbins performed with distinction during a rowdy port meeting last Tuesday. While commissioner Jim Jorgensen picked an argument with members of the audience, and commissioner Mike McAuley stooped to chastising citizens for thinking they had a right to speak out and complain, Robbins cooly did his best to run the two meetings in an orderly manner. (Yes, technically, it was one meeting.) When a speaker talked past the three-minute bell, if they were making sense, Robbins allowed them to continue.
So a tip of the hat to Robbins. Of course, as the commissioner who engineered this deal, he knew full well that he had Jorgensen’s vote in his pocket and no matter what people said the deal was going to be approved. McAuley is unpredictable.
That said, Mike McAuley was right in stating that the port does not need to listen to citizens nor hold hearings. McAuley is an offensive and arrogant guy, but he is correct. Ports in Washington state have almost unlimited power. They were set up that way by an amendment to our state constitution in 1911 and the concept is supported by our state laws. The intention a hundred years ago was to create independent business-like government agencies - called ports - that would be almost beyond the reach of politics. Commissioners are elected for six year terms and only one government agency - the state auditor - has any oversight of them.
The Washington state attorney general cannot investigate nor counter any port commission. Unlike cities and counties in Washington state, ports do not have to hold public hearings, do not need second readings on bills and do not need to notify the public of what they intend to do.
For instance, the Port of Bellingham could issue a 24 hour notice of a port commission meeting. At that meeting, they could decide most anything they wanted to do - like spend $10 million to extend the airport runway. They could vote and gavel the meeting over in 5 minutes. Done and legal.
Why was it set up this way? Because a hundred years ago our state wanted port agencies to build infrastructure like docks, railroad sidings, dredged harbors and waterside facilities for fishing, shipping and commerce. They wanted ports to be beyond the reach of normal politics and citizens getting in the way of what port commissioners might want to do. Today, that power is actually hurting communities as ports spend on frivolous projects and make bone-headed capital decisions without the benefit of input by the community.
About 25 years ago, then State Senator Harriet Spanel, working with port reformers across the state, got state laws changed to allow some modernizing of port laws. I was one of those who went to Olympia and testified for the changes. The new laws allowed local initiatives to reduce terms from six to four years, and to increase the size of a port commission from three to five members. These were meant to bring ports closer to citizens - closer to voters and the public they are supposed to serve. We in Whatcom County did succeed is changing the terms from six to four years.
What we need to do next is increase to five port commissioners - and we need those two additional commissioner seats to be at-large so anyone from anywhere in the county can run in every port election. We need five heads looking at decisions. There is no corporate board today that has three board members because a triumvirate is always controlled by one. How? The most aggressive member only has to influence the weakest of the other two and that is it. Once increased to five commissioners, the mix of personalities requires consensus of at least three with the other two only needing to pick off one to change the vote. This creates meaningful dialog.
To improve decision-making at the port, we have to do a better job electing good people - and we need to have more than three commissioners. Often, we think we are electing the good candidate but they turn out to be - shall we say - not up to the job. We need more commissioners on the commission so that one election "mistake" on our part will not screw things up - such as firing an outstanding executive director like Charlie Sheldon or selling off our birthright like the current commission just did. With five commissioners, one bad commissioner will have far less ability to cause damage.
I’ve packed a lot of information about ports into this article. Some of you readers also have expertise on these issues and I hope you either comment in support of what I have posted, or correct, clarify or disagree with any statements of mine. The goal here is to inform our fellow citizens of the facts, of common sense perspectives and of what we all can do to improve our local politics. Politics should not be a dirty word, as it is how we govern ourselves - or not.
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