Et tu, Brute?
ET TU, BRUTE?: The Ides of March collided with the Fools of April last week as senior staff at the Port of Bellingham slipped a knife into the toga of Port Commissioner Jim Jorgensen for the bloody killing of Caesar on the floor of the agency’s legislative chamber. Charlie Sheldon, the port’s popular and accomplished executive director, only 18 months on the job, was delivered a brutal no-win scenario: Resign, or be fired without benefits.
In a drama of Shakespearean crafting, Sheldon was executed while several key members of Port of Bellingham staff were out of town. Most notably absent was Sheldon himself. Also conveniently out of the way was Fred Seeger, who’d served as the port’s interim director while the commission struggled (and spent more than $100,000) in two attempts to find a permanent director with the capabilities of Sheldon, and the agency’s planning director, Sylvia Goodwin. Lydia Bennett, promoted in a reorganization last October that enraged Port Commissioner Scott Walker, was also out of town.
Bennett was promoted to a new position, director of business development, in Sheldon’s subtle but key new emphasis on locating and attracting new, near-term tenants and jobs. Early successes included drawing Aluminum Boats Australia, a global manufacturer of aluminum hulls for yachts and ferries, to the space formerly occupied by Aluminum Chambered Boats, site of the old Uniflite boatworks in Fairhaven. A long lease for a new manufacturing tenant makes difficult the conversion of that property to the sorts of high-rise condos and boutique retail favored by Walker, a conversion anticipated in the city’s 2006 plan for Fairhaven Neighborhood.
On Fri., March 30, commissioners met to discuss certain modifications or accommodations the director might make to assuage the commission’s concerns about these and other bold new directions. Sheldon was not at that meeting, focused on a fire in Squalicum Marina earlier that week. According to Commissioners Michael McAuley and Jim Jorgensen, their meeting went well. McAuley in particular said he was convinced commissioners intended to meet formally with Sheldon the following week to address commission concerns.
Over the weekend, staff members (up to four, in one telling) were relaying communication among commissioners, expressing unhappiness with Sheldon and apprehension that Jorgensen would not execute on their behalf. By laws restricting quorums, commissioners are unable to speak to one another casually, and are dependent upon staff for the relay of information. Unconfirmed are reports that certain key staff whipsawed Jorgensen. Yet we can gauge evidence of that by what happened next: By Saturday, Jorgensen was no longer in agreement with McAuley on his earlier support for their director and was now in agreement with Walker that Sheldon must resign or be fired.
Only if Sheldon resigned would he be granted severance consideration. Staff then met with Walker to craft that severance package.
In an amazing transformation, a discussion among three commissioners about next steps became instead decisive command action.
Walker knew he had Jorgensen; McAuley was surprised to learn Jorgensen had defected: That alone suggests unusual, organized ex parte communication.
By Monday, commissioners and staff had a draft of Sheldon’s resignation. Sheldon, in Seattle, denied he had resigned, perhaps anticipating that some further negotiation about his future might be reasonable. If asked, he would stay on as port director, he indicated. Apart from that, a curtain of silence was drawn around the agency.
At no time did commissioners sit down as a group with Sheldon and discuss their concerns with his performance and possible remedies.
At the commission’s Tuesday meeting, the scope of what the commission might discuss was carefully steered and side railed by the agency’s outside legal counsel, Frank Chmelik. Chmelik informed the commission they could only discuss and approve the severance package, not whether to accept Sheldon’s resignation—despite the fact that that resignation had been coerced under threat of termination without benefit!
The question of whether Sheldon would stay if asked to stay was not acknowledged or discussed.
Immediately after the knifing, senior staff reinforced the curtain, with new interim director Rob Fix issuing an email cautioning staff against open discussion of events. He encouraged a centralized chain of communication. Environmental director Mike Stoner sent out an addendum, urging restriction on the discussion of “personnel issues.”
Fix and Stoner, perhaps other few senior staff actually in town as events unfolded, were central to the scouring of Jorgensen over the weekend. In his public comments, Jorgensen admitted to having been persuaded by staff.
We won’t speculate on actions and motives, but Fix and Stoner each benefit from Caesar’s fall.
Fix, promoted to second-in-command through Sheldon’s organizational changes, now moves to the position of interim director, perhaps indefinitely. His background in the hotel and hospitality industry is suited, hand in velvet glove, to Walker’s fixation on real estate, boutique retail and high-rise condo development.
Stoner suffered a slight downgrade in Sheldon’s reorganization, moving from a central figure leading waterfront redevelopment to a more subordinate role as Bennett shifted emphasis from finding a buyer for the site to finding tenants.
Stoner’s reduction came just weeks after Dan Pike, campaigning for reelection as Bellingham’s mayor, made inartful remarks in a public forum regarding Stoner’s pace and efficacy as director of the port’s environmental efforts. The mayor’s remarks drew a spirited defense of Stoner from Sheldon, who cited the extensive qualifications of his environmental director; however, the groundwork was laid for a reorganization less than one month later that reduced Stoner’s lead. Inartful though they were, Pike’s criticisms were common currency in circulation among port watchers. Already the Dept. of Ecology was beginning to edge into a more prominent lead on a few near-term cleanups of the former Georgia-Pacific site, projects that had stalled pre-Sheldon while the port haggled with the City of Bellingham over infrastructure commitments.
A petition circulates, collecting signatures by the hundreds, urging Jorgensen to change his verdict: “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
The petition is here: http://www.change.org/petitions/bellingham-port-commissioners-keep-charlie-sheldon
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