Rough air for the ancient mariner
ROUGH AIR FOR THE ANCIENT MARINER: Friction continues between Port of Bellingham Commission President Scott Walker and the agency’s Executive Director Charlie Sheldon. At the commission’s regular meeting last week, Walker expressed open displeasure over a recent trip Sheldon authorized for the port’s aviation director.
Walker took Sheldon to task for sending Port Aviation Director Dan Zenk and a consultant under contract to the Bahamas for an aviation industry conference to promote Bellingham International Airport. Sheldon had not sought commission approval for the expense. Sheldon apologized for the oversight. Unmollified, Walker flew his concerns to the airwaves.
“Our own policy internally is that this cannot be done without commission approval,” Walker explained to KGMI newcaster Dillon Honcoop. “The executive director has to notify the commission prior to travel. That wasn’t done either.
“When it came to light that we had sent one of our employees to a meeting in the Bahamas a couple of weeks ago, I thought that was excessive,” Walker said. “Public employees, unless there’s a dire need, really shouldn’t be taking vacations in the Bahamas on the taxpayers’ dollar.”
Walker chided Sheldon as a “spendthrift,” and attempted to limit the director’s authority to authorize international travel beyond Canada in the future without prior approval from the commissioners. His motion died without the support of other commissioners.
Port Commissioner Michael McAuley noted afterward that his colleague had miscast the nature of the trip. Sheldon, he said, has acted at their direction.
The aviation director had attended a Routes of America conference held by the airline industry in Nassau in February. Conference sponsors selected the location to expand airline interests in the Caribbean. More than 60 airlines attended the conference, some the port seeks to court as the agency develops a master plan for Bellingham airport.
“You don’t get to pick where the conferences are held,” McAuley explained, expressing his confidence the $10,000 investment was well spent and within budget. “I feel confident the aviation director was there doing the work that we asked him to do.
“It is very important that our airport director goes and talks to these other airlines,” McAuley said. “We need to know what they’re thinking about our airport, so we can respond by either providing services to them, or letting them know that we can’t manage what they are proposing.
“The Bahamas, maybe not the [most frugal] place to go to, but we have to take advantge of the opportunities that we get,” he said.
Walker’s annoyance with the new port director became public in October when the commissioner attempted to preempt a restructuring of the agency proposed by Sheldon. Walker attempted to bring a vote of no confidence and ask for the director’s resignation. His action did not gather the support of the other two port commissioners, who continue to voice support and confidence in their director.
Walker insists his irritation is not personal, saying that he appreciates Sheldon’s “ancient mariner” personality. Indeed, Walker was one of the strongest advocates in the original hire of the former shipping director for the Port of Seattle.
“The Port of Seattle is well known to throw more money around,” Walker told KGMI. “The culture of the Port of Bellingham is very different. We don’t throw money at things. We have tried very hard over the years to be very conservative with money,” he said. “These things that have happened lately are pretty distressing to me because I have seen years of work to establish a reputation for the port slipping away.”
A strong supporter of an early vision for the redevelopment of Bellingham’s central waterfront around a large yacht basin, Walker has seen that vision drift as the economics of new marina development cratered in the financial crisis of 2007. Sheldon saw opportunity to shift the agency’s emphasis to airport expansion. Yet Walker says he is uncertain expansion is an appropriate focus for the port authority.
“How big and busy of an airport does Whatcom County want or need?” Walker asked. “I’m not a big believer that we need to become a competitor with Sea-Tac or Vancouver.”
Walker’s concern is curious, as he has historically been the commission’s most ardent champion of enhanced airport operations; yet his comments resonate with communities around the airport that have experienced an increase in noise and transportation congestion. Still, the airport grows apace, with Bellingham offering competitive boarding fees that draw large portions of travelers from Canada. The past year was the busiest in airport history, with about a half a million departing passengers in 2011. Commissioners recently gave unanimous approval to a $17 million terminal expansion project paid for with fees added to the tickets of air passengers.
The port will sponsor a public meeting on further planning for the airport April 19.
“The goal is to understand a bit better how Bellingham airport fits into the thinking of air carriers,” McAuley said of the larger planning process. “Bellingham is unlikely to become a hub or a shipping center, but there is no east-west connection and weak northern routes for our local business travelers. I, for one, would like to bolster Bellingham as support for northwest Washington businesses,” he said.
“While it might seem there is deep disagreement among port staff and the commissioners, there is even deeper and broader agreement about and commitment to the port’s goals and mission,” McAuley said. “We’re really focused on economic development.”
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