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The Gristle

The drive for five
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THE DRIVE FOR FIVE: Just over one century ago, the People of Washington, exhausted by decades of abuse from the robber barons, established port authorities and utility districts, each designed to push back against the abuses of private corporations. Public utility districts were established, with the aid of the state’s powerful grange movement, to bring electrical service to distant rural farms after profit-hungry investor-owned utilities refused. In the case of ports, they were intended (ironically, in light of our times) to resist the efforts of the railroads, the degree to which these corporations had corrupted the federal courts in their efforts to corner the state’s shorelines and harbor access.

The People of Washington were wise in 1912.

As originally chartered, ports and PUDs were each governed by a board of elected commissions of three members, the tiniest number of representatives that might produce some approximate of a democratic result. Over the century, the role of PUDs has changed very little from their original charter; however, ports added airports, public infrastructure, real estate, environmental remediation, and a bevy of other growing complexities to an emerging mandate of economic development.

For example, the Port of Bellingham in 2005 acquired more than 64 acres of polluted industrial land on the city’s central waterfront, adding dramatically to the complexity of the agency’s portfolio and duties.

In 1994, in recognition of the expanding role and complexity of port operations, our own former state Sen. Harriet Spanel ushered through the Legislature a law that would clarify and permit the expansion of port commissions from three to five members. In July, at the urging of Spanel and others, Port of Bellingham commissioners approved such a measure for the Whatcom County ballot this November.

The impetus for the expansion was driven in large part by the commission’s ill-considered termination of the agency’s executive director, Charlie Sheldon, following two costly talent searches and after he was on the job just 18 months. And while the Gristle is not at all convinced a larger, better informed commission might have prevented that underhanded act—driven as it was by quasi-legal insider machinations and the apparent overreach of certain junior staff with a greedy eye on the increase of their own salaries and pensions—the larger, more durable point remains about the growing complexity (and costs) of decisions made by the Port of Bellingham board of commissioners.

We need more, and better, representation on the Port of Bellingham commission.

Commissioners last week introduced three potential candidates to replace Sheldon in advance of that vote, no doubt to stamp their imprimatur deep into port operations before voters have an opportunity to alter that direction.

The Port of Bellingham and City of Bellingham also took an additional step this month toward easing at least some complexity, approving an interlocal agreement that would transfer and consolidate properties north and south of Whatcom Waterway. The agreement transfers port ownership of proposed parkland against the Sehome bluffs in exchange for the agency gaining greater control over the marine trades area adjacent to the former GP tissue warehouse. The transfer eases issues related to the waterfront master planning process set to begin next year, including freeing the city from commitments of up to $3 million in wharf improvements in the marine trades area.

Late in their meeting last week, Port Commission President Scott Walker requested a change in the agency’s budget to study a new building in the acquired marine trades area that might jumpstart waterfront redevelopment. Walker suggested the construction of new port offices, built with public dollars, as a means to inspire the confidence of private developers in the area.

His request amply illustrates the dementia of the port commission.

The port’s current offices on Roeder Avenue were built at public expense as part of the agency’s Bellwether expansion, a scheme concocted without coordination with city planning that pulled energy out of the downtown core. Unable to find tenants to bear their exorbitant rents, the port remodeled and moved in. Even so, the complex remains extensively under-occupied.

The commission’s knifing of their popular and capable director—engineered almost wholly by Walker and key staff by bullying other commissioners and other staff into ignorance and befuddlement—to this day defies explanation, other than in one aspect: Sheldon’s vision of an agency looking outward for economic development prosperity to share with the broader community versus Walker’s perverse vision of rentiers dedicated to their own expansion and largesse, a vision in which the port’s tax-exempt taxing authority is actually leveraged in competition against the private sector. His vision is utterly hostile to and contemptuous of a working waterfront and a historic economy built around marine uses, as fishermen know.

Walker imagines the “economic development” mandate of the port as one in which the agency continually lines its own pockets. In the end,  all that is in those pockets is laundered lint. Small wonder Sheldon—who exposed that, resisted that—had to go.

An expanded commission might readdress the necessary assumptions that undergird the port’s acquisition of the Georgia-Pacific property—a vision of rents on yachts and high-rise condos—surely transformed after the catastrophic collapse of the bubble that supported those assumptions. And an expanded commission might be better equipped to cooperate more fully with the City of Bellingham and its public development authority on the central waterfront.

The time is right, and the time has come.


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