It is time to bring to our community the information and questions we have been dealing with regarding the sudden firing of Port of Bellingham Executive Director Charlie Sheldon last week. As many business, civic and fishing industry leaders have come forward to speak highly of Charlie and the tragedy of his firing, I have held back posting about the sad and illegal string of events that led to his dismissal. I've held back in hope that port commissioner Jim Jorgensen would reverse himself and join commissioner Mike McAuley in offering Sheldon his job back. Jorgensen has had sufficient grace time, so now we write.
On Friday, March 30, the three port commissioners held an executive meeting - a closed meeting with only invited staff and counsel - to discuss “personnel.” After the closed meeting, there was no public session, and thus, by law, no action taken by the commission. They obviously met to discuss Charlie Sheldon and whether to ask him for his resignation. We all know that. With no vote, we know that coming out of that meeting, commissioner Scott Walker was unable to convince Jim Jorgensen to vote to ask Sheldon for his resignation. Mike McAuley strongly supported Sheldon. So ended the week.
Commissioner Mike McAuley says, “Between the end of the closed executive port commission meeting on Friday and Monday morning, I had no contact directly or indirectly with either of the other two commissioners. On Monday, I was asked to review and approve a 'Separation Agreement' with Charlie Sheldon. Clearly, Jim had joined Scott in demanding Charlie Sheldon's resignation. What surprises me is the lack of openness, and unwillingness to make the decision in the session we had scheduled for Tuesday. All decisions, whether we agree or not, should be determined by the whole body, not just any one of us working individually until a quorum is reached. That is a failure to uphold the spirit of the people's demand for open government.”
Actually, it is more than the spirit of something. What Walker and Jorgensen did over the weekend was hold an illegal commission meeting in order to force Charlie Sheldon to resign. We have learned several things about what happened over the weekend. And part of what we learned was that Walker and Jorgensen communicated through port staff. This is a “serial meeting” - where two commissioners who are not allowed to meet and make decisions actually discuss and decide something via an intermediary. It is a plain violation of the Open Meetings act of state law. It is up to others - the State Auditor - to investigate and assign penalties.
What happened on Saturday? A delegation of port staffers went to Jim Jorgensen's home in Blaine on that morning. A reliable source verified that port directors Rob Fix, Mike Stoner and possibly a third director went to Blaine. It was Scott Walker who asked staff to go to Jorgensen's that Saturday morning. We know Jorgensen phoned Sheldon and then met with him in the afternoon and told him the vote was 2 to 1 demanding Sheldon either resign or be fired.
On Sunday things continued in an unethical if not illegal manner. Scott Walker, port attorney Frank Chmelik, and Rob Fix met to draft Sheldon's Separation Agreement. All this without ever notifying the third commission member, Mike McAuley.
On Monday morning, Sheldon wrote his resignation and submitted it. On Tuesday morning, he signed the Separation Agreement and the full port commission, in their regular afternoon meeting, approved the agreement. Mike McAuley tried his damnedest to get a two week delay on the agreement in hopes of getting Jorgensen to reverse his vote and keep Sheldon. No luck.
What is absent from this narrative is the motivation. We have some solid information that Rob Fix worked closely with Scott Walker for some time to get rid of Charlie Sheldon. With Chmelik helping draw up the agreement, this makes him part of the group of schemers working to oust Sheldon. Chmelik knew well that the Saturday actions were illegal.
This reconstruction of the weekend is from normally reliable sources. In this town, if you speak out, your social life and career will suffer. But in the case of such an audacious action as firing Charlie Sheldon, many people came forward with information - on condition of absolute non-attribution. Some are unknown to me, but came through other very reliable people. We are all trying to piece together what happened. My part is to post this report from our shared first-hand bits of information.
Kelli Linville, Bellingham's mayor, said, “I have spoken to all the commissioners to express my disappointment. I restated my support of Charlie, how much I enjoyed working with him and the important part he has played in working with me and city/port staff in moving a realistic plan forward for the waterfront.”
And now it is up to citizens to decide whether we express our objection to this action for a short while, or we come together to take long-term action. One option is to recall Walker and elect a replacement this fall. Another is to expand the commission to five members, thus overwhelming Walker and Jorgensen for the year 2013; this would also bring a better group dynamic to port decisions in the future. I favor leaving Walker where he is and putting our energy into two more commissioners. But it is up to our Whatcom community.