Titanic’s deck chairs on fire
TITANIC’S DECK CHAIRS ON FIRE: The rancor between Port of Bellingham Commission President Scott Walker and the agency’s Executive Director Charlie Sheldon flared to a head this week, as Sheldon—only 18 months at the helm of the port authority—tendered his resignation at the commission’s regular monthly meeting.
Commissioners met in executive session on Friday to discuss Sheldon’s job performance. Commissioner Mike McAuley said the meeting went well, with he and fellow Commissioner Jim Jorgensen continuing to express support for the agency’s head of daily operations. The situation changed over the weekend, McAuley said, with the agency head’s future in freefall by Monday. Commissioners met Monday afternoon to discuss a severance package for Sheldon.
Droves of civic and business leaders—fishermen and industrialists alike—arrived Tuesday to praise Sheldon and remark on the many fine relationships he’s built in a brief time. They encouraged commissioners to redouble their efforts to retain him. Commissioners responded instead to hidden machinations, murmuring vaguely about new directions without specifics. And a prince was slain in a palace coup by a cabal of furtive senior staff at the altar of a foolish priesthood, 2 votes to 1, Jorgensen thrusting the knife.
Rob Fix, deputy director and chief financial officer for the port authority, will take over as interim director.
The head-chopping comes just days before the Port Commission and Bellingham City Council were scheduled to sit down and iron out remaining quarrels and disagreements about Bellingham’s central waterfront, a meeting that would pave the way for the Bellingham Planning Commission to resume the public dialogue about the redevelopment of 137 acres of waterfront property that comprise the former site of the Georgia-Pacific West pulp and paper mill.
Walker went public in October with his grievances about how Sheldon had reorganized port staff, and refocused port energies on economic development in the near term. Walker’s fellow commissioners—who’ve expressed confidence in Sheldon, the talented manager of shipping for the Port of Seattle—appeared too weak to restrain Walker’s derisive, corrosive public comments about their employee, triggering a crisis.
Last month, Walker took to media airwaves to criticize Sheldon for authorizing a $10,000 expenditure to send Port Aviation Director Dan Zenk and a consultant to the Bahamas for an airline industry conference without getting advance approval from the commissioners. Sheldon apologized for the oversight, but the expense was still well within the port’s authorized budget as the agency attempts outreach with the airlines as part of a master planning effort around Bellingham International Airport. Walker swaddled his fraud in a swindle: The commission’s most ardent supporter of an expanded airport now criticizes an unpopular airport expansion!
Whatever Sheldon spent will be dwarfed by the scads of taxpayer money the port will pickpocket on the third director search in three years.
Frankly, if anyone deserved to be put over the side, it was Rear Admiral Walker for flagrantly prosecuting a dispute with an employee in public and against the wishes of the commission majority. Walker, granted no special power or authority on the commission, exercised the tyranny of the minority. At the very least, McAuley and Jorgensen should insist he also tender his resignation from the commission so they might appoint a less fussy and ill-tempered martinet for the next round of applications to replace Sheldon.
Hired after two attempts to lure talent to Bellingham, Director Sheldon showed uncanny abilities in his brief time as port director, unilaterally ending the thuggish hostage-taking of the previous port administration—a coercive calculation that stalled forward activity on the waterfront until the port landed its luxury marina, development permits and tens of millions in infrastructure ransom from city taxpayers—and replaced it with bustling activity and environmental cleanup, creating scores of new jobs on the waterfront. Sheldon also strongly advocated reduced marina fees for working commercial fishing fleets as a means to bring that marine industry, long driven from our shores by the warped priorities of Walker’s commission, and returned its economic multipliers back to Bellingham. He turned a real estate association for cronies and crooks back into a port authority.
Walker made noises about Sheldon being insufficiently miserly, a “spendthrift” with port finances, bragging about the agency’s legendary tight-fistedness.
Those remarks come mere days before a devastating fire in a boathouse in Squalicum Marina that destroyed several boats and left two people feared dead—the second fire on port property since the start of this year. An earlier fire consumed a sailboat anchored in the marina in February, damaging four other boats.
Bellingham City Council decommissioned the fire department’s fireboat, Fire Belle, in their 2012 budget after the Port of Bellingham again declined to help sponsor the marine support craft. In November, council had debated extending the contract for the aging vessel for an additional six months to give the port opportunity to support the asset. Port commissioners showed no interest in that support and extension, despite the (obvious now) fact their properties are most in need of waterside fire support.
The Belle’s last operation was extinguishing a railroad trestle fire in Chuckanut Bay in July; and while it is unclear the vessel would have proven useful in battling the last two marina fires, the asset has been allowed to decay by indifferent, penny-pinching port officials, with no plan for alternative.
Commissioners spoke of the need for new directions. None was in evidence at their meeting—the same old rotted machinations, the same disservice and disgrace to public initiatives, from a promising new start to a thudding return to business-as-usual at the Port of Bellingham.
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