The Gristle

Crossbones and crosstabs
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CROSSBONES AND CROSSTABS: Port of Bellingham commissioners had made their selection and were prepared last week to announce they’d reserved the executive director’s chair for Jonathan Daniels, the accomplished director of the Port of Oswego, New York. Daniels, however, at the last moment withdrew his application for the position, casting the Bellingham port plans into disarray. Daniels’ given reason was that Oswego was intent on retaining him and had made him a substantial counteroffer; yet, in the small universe of port authorities the story must widely circulate of how the mutinous Bellingham crew knifed their last accomplished director, Charlie Sheldon, and the crazed admiralty of commissioners drove him wounded off the plank at the point of cutlasses last spring. Such a cutthroat tale must trim seriously into recruitment efforts and the numbers of applicants wishing to risk similar shabby treatment.

Instead of hanging the mutineers, the admiralty instead exalted them, hurriedly swapping in interim director Rob Fix—one of the architects of Sheldon’s demise—as permanent executive director, rewarding a meritocracy of shame. Their decision eliminates the possibility fresh eyes may challenge a closed loop of port plans and assumptions.

Meanwhile, citizen efforts at curing scurvy at the Port of Bellingham grounded on shoals. In one of the more curious outcomes of the November election, initiative to expand the numbers and quality of port commissioners appears to have failed by little more than 2,000 votes.

The map tells a story—although certainly not the only story—of why the measure failed, and the story is not especially surprising: The effort to reform the port passed strongly in areas where the agency operates most noticeably, in Bellingham precincts around the waterfront and airport. It failed in areas where the agency operates less noticeably, rural county precincts. County voters perceived no particular reason to bear the costs of expanding and complicating a minor governmental agency. And at just 35 percent of countywide turnout, Bellingham voters were just not sufficient to turn that outcome.

The map tells a second story, however, which is the relative contribution of each city and the rural county to the coffers of the Port of Bellingham, a junior taxing district that derives each dollar in ten of its operating revenues from property taxes. There one can perceive the imbalance of this election, the inherent unfairness of representation, that while Bellingham voters comprise just 35 percent of the county electorate, Bellingham taxpayers fund the lion’s share of the port’s operating revenues. Bellingham taxpayers pay the port $2.4 million, more than twice the amount of property taxes paid to the agency by the rest of Whatcom’s cities combined. And the bulk of those port operations occur within and impact the City of Bellingham.

Granted, the port is prepared to spend $50 million for an expansion of the Bellingham International Airport terminal and Whatcom Waterway cleanup as its largest capital projects in 2013. But given most port energy is concentrated in Bellingham, who better to gauge the need for a better, more circumspect commission than Bellingham voters? No city faces greater threat or reward from the quality of commission decisions than Bellingham.

It is a central problem with an entity that focuses almost all of its endeavors within the City of Bellingham, but struts around claiming authority as a countywide agency.

Conversely, the unincorporated county pumps in as much in property tax as all of Whatcom’s cities added together, including Bellingham, yet receives virtually nothing in return from the port. Perhaps those areas are also in need of better representation on the commission.

The position statement against the expansion that appeared in the 2012 Voters Pamphlet was deeply mendacious, as were comments Port Commission President Scott Walker made just prior to election in the Bellingham Business Pulse. Both sources claimed the annual cost to expand the commission was in excess of $100,000. Walker set the cost to the Pulse in excess of $150,000, a figure derived from dividing full administrative costs among three commissioners and apportioning those to two additional commissioners. No, only the salaries and benefits of new commissioners would measurably add to aggregate costs—a bargain, in our view, considering the size and scope of the $60.6 million operating budget the commission oversees, about one-quarter of 1 percent of that budget.

Hell, the commission blew more than that in three separate and useless searches for an executive director.

Walker and the shadowy “Committee Against Proposition 1” (actually a couple of longshoremen who stand to benefit from rubberstamping waterfront projects) also made the absurd claim that, “with a five member commission, the commissioners would be able to meet” with one another without creating a quorum. Horrors. In fact, eliminating the serial meeting skullduggery, Walker’s manipulation of the ignorance of the other commissioners in order to squeeze out Sheldon, was exactly an outcome expansion was intended to facilitate. Commissioners McAuley and Jorgensen might have been able to call one another and learn they were being shanked by a master con-man.

Commissioners tried to logroll the proposed citizens initiative last summer, swapping in their own version, which left them in control of gerry­mandering new representation on the commission. Their twiddling killed public enthusiasm in support of the expansion, yet still it came within a hairsbreadth of passing. Perhaps another run at the reef might succeed in the flood tide of 2013.


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