The Gristle

The drive for five

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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.

Past Columns
Civil War

October 26, 2016

Twice Zero

October 19, 2016

Convergent Streams

October 12, 2016


October 5, 2016

A Stitch In Time

September 28, 2016

Closer to home

September 21, 2016

Zombie Stumbles On

September 14, 2016


September 7, 2016

Much ADU about nothing

August 31, 2016

A Matter of Equity

August 24, 2016

A Lock on the Crypt

August 17, 2016

Zombie Terror

August 10, 2016

A Raucous Caucus

August 3, 2016

Lockup Lockstep

July 27, 2016

Polar Wastes

July 20, 2016

Chapter Two

July 13, 2016

Close the Schools!

June 22, 2016

Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Spanish Storytime

10:00am|Lynden Library

Ferndale Farmers Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Final Ferndale Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Scary Bake Sale

1:30pm|Blaine Library

Gates and Fires

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk

5:30pm|Syre Student Center

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Hamster Ball

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Panic Squad

7:00pm|Lynden Middle School

Ben Folds and a Piano

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Back to School Catechism

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

MBT Once Andrew Subin
Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

Fall Family Fun

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Run Wild Bellingham

9:00am|Whatcom Falls Park

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Hummingbird Class

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Birch Bay Bible Church

Family Activity Day

10:00am|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Harvest Happens

10:00am|Bellewood Acres

Chuckanut Writers Workshop

10:00am|Village Books

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Youth Symphony Fall Concert

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Gravestone Primer

1:00pm|Sedro-Woolley Museum

Writing Workshop

2:30pm|Lynden Library

Closing Reception at i.e.

3:00pm|i.e. gallery

Walk the Stars

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk in Edison

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

Ghost Stories on Bellingham Bay

4:30pm|T.G. Richards Building

BAAY Haunted House

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Irish Concert

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Halloween Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Saturday Night Spookeasy

8:00pm|Secret locale

Lydia Place Artifacts Wine Bar
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Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Harvest Happens

10:00am|Bellewood Acres

BAAY Haunted House

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Final Sunday Market

1:00pm|Alger Community Hall

Taste of Skagit Valley

4:00pm|Maple Hall and Brodniak Hal

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|BAAY Theatre


7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

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