Monday, April 16, 2012

The Port's Reality Distortion Field

What's the difference between the Port of Bellingham and the Boy Scouts?
Answer: The Boy Scouts have adult supervision.
All the brightwork polish in the world won't put a shine on our Port's activities these days, until the current corrosive scheming and salty talk is harnessed to a more positive effect.
What could restore some Port lustre is the simple return to basics, like teamwork, self-discipline and a renewed focus on the goals that count to this community; think waterfront redevelopment and the prudent generation of jobs and commerce that belong on or near the waters of Bellingham's rusty front door.

Since the Port's appalling Commissioner's meeting two weeks ago, I've given some thought to what happened - as was observed by about 100 concerned citizens. It wasn't pretty or necessary, but instead, silly and counterproductive
The questions remain; why did it happen and what can be done about it now?

Several written accounts have been published since the talk of summarily dismissing the Port's Director surfaced, all of them faithful to accurate reporting of what was seen and heard.
John Stark's Herald reports are referenced here.
Tim Johnson's Cascadia Weekly articles are here, and here.
John Servais' blogs on Northwest Citizen start here.
An online petition in support of Charlie Sheldon is here. [I've signed it]

But, explaining why this unusual dustup happened should be the real story, particularly if similar missteps are to be avoided in the future.
My assessment of the Port of Bellingham is that it has an excellent 90-person staff, of which about 10% are considered 'senior'. A little top-heavy, but with the range of operations involved likely appropriate.
Since at least the mid-nineties, the Port has seemed to function pretty well, with a possible exception or two better known by closer observers.
So, with these points in mind, what has changed that might account for this recent kerfluffle?

Three things mainly come to mind:

• The Port's 2004 commitment to waterfront cleanup & redevelopment, in partnership with the City of Bellingham

• The resignation of former Executive Director, Jim Darling in 2009 and subsequent hiring of Charlie Shelton 19 months ago

• The recent election of Commissioner Mike McAuley to replace former long term Commissioner Doug Smith

Now, my point: the only 'reason' given for the quick, forced termination of current Executive Director Sheldon was the excessively vague rationale of 'the Port wanting to go in another direction'. Not a new direction necessarily,mind you, just another one.

Now, what in hell does that mean?
Was there a real 'cause' for this sacking, other than the two older Commissioner's wishes?
What was the great hurry?
Why was Sheldon hired in the first place?
More importantly, how is this situation going to be resolved?

Here's my attempt to answer these questions:

'Another' direction really seems to mean the old direction, most familiar and comfortable to most of the current Port players who were used to dealing with one another predictably and not wading into waters more than ankle deep. That has now changed and some of the older players don't like it. Each of the three changes listed above likely plays a key part in the current situation.

First, undertaking the ambitious waterfront redevelopment envisaged took the Port into much deeper waters than it was accustomed to or equipped for. That has been evident since 2004, when the partnership agreement with the City was first formalized, with difficulty. At the time, there were many details yet to be investigated for which information was needed, and even more importantly - jointly developed in full collaboration with the City.

That collaboration has not been easy, and still seems to lack the mutual trust & respect necessary to bring this admittedly audacious project into accepted reality. Instead, it has repeatedly lapsed into bouts of bickering that do not engender public confidence in the Port's ability -or willingness- to work with the City in a true, bilateral sense of cooperation.
I am not pointing fingers here, just pointing out what has been a very public display of disagreement in matters important, even essential, to eventual success.

During the time in which the Port decided to undertake this very ambitious project, it had the benefit of fairly stable and predictable leadership. Former Port Director Darling was an experienced and competent leader, always supported by at least two, and often all three Commissioners who supported him strongly and were satisfied with things the way they were.
That comfort zone began to change in earnest during 2003/4, when the G-P property was acquired and the Waterfront Redevelopment effort begun, with the Port's main interest being the alchemy of turning the former G-P waste treatment pond [ASB] into a world class marina -perhaps the last one likely to be permitted anywhere along the West Coast. That was the first attraction and hoped-for cash cow for supporting whatever else came to fruition.

Also, about that time, Commissioner Jorgenson was first elected and welcomed by Commissioners Walker and Smith, the two old sea dogs who had been in place for years, and along with Director Darling, mainly controlled Port activities and its culture.
I know first-hand that Jorgenson's comfort level was severely challenged when he was faced with agreeing to taking on the huge Redevelopment effort that the two senior Commissioners and Director favored, but he did accept their assurances and agree himself as well.

So, there should be no doubt that this Marina dream was the carrot that enticed the Port into its current briar patch. Carrying semi-apt analogies just a bit further, the moment the Port agreed to partner with the City on the much larger project, was also the time it touched the tar baby of real public process, something it had only dabbled its toes in before.

Predictably, the Port's difficulties in dealing with both the City and concerned citizens led to agitation to begin changing the Port toward -shall we say- a more customer friendly culture. Unused to heated public political challenges, the Commissioners struggled to maintain control while the essential partnership with the City also struggled in fits and starts, due largely to a clash of cultures and emerging fiscal realities. Such things are never easy, and the cumulative mutual bruising began to erode the positive momentum initially generated. As time passed, none of this spectacle was helping the project go forward, especially with the enthusiasm of shared public visions.

In late 2006, Mayor Mark Asmundson - a dynamic advocate for the Port partnership - resigned and was replaced by former Mayor Tim Douglas, who served admirably until 2008, when Dan Pike was elected Mayor with ideas of his own. More turbulence ensued as Pike tried unsuccessfully to get things back on the track originally intended - albeit with some different tweaks that lacked traction.

Then, in mid 2009, Jim Darling - after NOAA's decision to relocate its facilities to Oregon instead of Bellingham - resigned as Executive Director, leaving something of a leadership vacuum at the Port. In the interim, while a 17-month search for a new Director was being conducted, slow progress continued, limited both by ongoing disagreements between Port & City, plus the new priorities of an unhealthy economy.

In late 2010, two significant changes occurred; Charlie Sheldon was named new Port Director by unanimous consent of all three current Commissioners, Walker, McAuley and Jorgenson. [Mike McAuley was elected Commissioner to replace Smith, beginning in 2010]
Over the next 18 months, those changes would come to be perceived as disruptions to the usual scheme of things at the Port, particularly the burden of dealing with the Redevelopment effort.

Charlie Shelton, despite his excellent credentials in Seattle, wasn't from around here and unsurprisingly had a somewhat different perspective and operating style than prior Directors. Perhaps, he simply didn't replace his rubber boots with the rubber stamps that the Commissioners preferred? I don't know. But, I also don't know what job description he was given or what rules he was supposed to follow. Those things do seem a bit unspoken -and maybe even uncharted- to me regarding the Port.
Good ol' boys do seem to expect newcomers to just intuit how things are done, sometimes without much explanation. Had you noticed? Maybe Charlie's instincts weren't up to this task, whether a reasonable expectation or not. More important, any Director worth his salt wouldn't likely agree to simply become an obedient yes-man, to part-time politicos, would they?

Anyway, the introduction of a new Commissioner about the time a new Port Director was hired might have triggered a barely perceptible tipping of balance in the Port Commission's unseen mechanisms.
Faced with not only a new Director - chosen unanimously by the Commission- and a new, independent minded Commissioner, elected to bring more public accountability to it, apparently grew into displeasure for at least one of the old Commissioners [Walker], who much preferred his former tacit understandings with familiar colleagues. Remember, Walker has been there since 1991 -even before Jim Darling had been hired- so not only was he used to getting his way, but he was invested in certain prized outcomes, such as the conversion of the ASB into a Marina.

By contrast, Jorgenson is a relative newcomer [only 9 years as Commissioner] who got used to going along and getting along with his two senior Commissioners, as well as former Director Darling, whose stamp was on nearly every Port activity. Also, longer term observers will remember the complaint by Jorgenson's predecessor, Ginny Benton, that she resented Port 'decisions being made in the men's room'. What does that tell you? Think Jorgenson was treated any differently?

I really like Jim Jorgenson, and have respected him since he became a Port Commissioner 9 years ago - right in the midst of the decision to take on the G-P and Waterfront Redevelopment with the City as partner. Jim is a reasonable person with the overall welfare of the community at heart, so I don't view him as a schemer, intent on getting his way on things; no, he's much more of a peacemaker, as even his colleagues see him. But Jim has his comfort zone, too. He's known Walker as a colleague over nine years now, while McAuley remains mainly a newcomer with an independent streak. Could that be a key in understanding Walker's success in convincing Jorgenson to support a quick jettisoning of Sheldon? That is very possible, especially when coupled with a few expressions of discontent from 'senior' staff members, with the apparent complicity of the Port's hired legal counsel.

But, Jorgenson takes his job seriously and I know he has been impressed by the unusual outpouring of public support for Sheldon, so maybe, just maybe, he'll change his mind. I would be surprised if he decided to compound the problem by again ratifying it, but that's his call. I do think Jim recognizes the Port's public reputation is now on the line, and this in turn might also impact the Port's ability to recruit other quality candidates for the Director position. Who would seriously entertain the idea of working here amid such arbitrary and fractious intrigues?
I hope Charlie Sheldon will agree to return as Director, providing a contract offer with assurance of continued support is offered. I have it on pretty good authority that Sheldon would favorably consider returning to the job for which he was hired, if good faith is demonstrated by at least a majority of the Port Commission. That's two Commissioners, folks.
Let's hope that happens.

So, back to the questions asked above;
Not a new direction necessarily, just another one. Now, what in hell does that mean?
My view is as described above; the dynamics of Port leadership changed and some folks didn't like that their influence was diminished. Couple that with a new Director eager to learn about other opportunities, options and opinions and understand how this might appear as a threat to the status quo.

Was there a real 'cause' for this sacking, other than the two older Commissioner's wishes?
Probably not. That's why all the stammering, embarrassment, hearsay and hiding behind assumed executive session privileges. Because the Port Director is hired by and reports to the Commission, he is likely considered an at-will employee, meaning he serves at their pleasure and can be fired without cause. In that vein, any discussion of the ASB being used for any purpose other a Marina could have contributed to the dissatisfaction by a Commissioner; because the ASB was seen as an absolute sacred cow, despite any inconvenient facts relating to its ultimate viability! Any dissatisfied Commissioner only needs to persuade one other Commissioner to take the action of firing its subordinate, without needing what most of us outsiders might agree represents a just cause. They could do it, so they did.

What was the great hurry?
It was largely manufactured as a fait accompli, closely following the tragic and fatal fire at the Port's boathouse facility, and during the time several senior staff were away. Was this a railroad job designed to satisfy Commissioner Walker and his recruited accomplice[s]? It sure looks like it to me.

Why was Sheldon hired in the first place?
Simply because he had the qualifications, made himself available, responded to Port recruiting efforts, and filled the Port's needs for an experienced Director better than the other candidates. It is ironic that two of the three Commissioners which voted to hired him are now the ones willing to fire him without any clear reason other than they wanted to go in another direction! You've got to be kidding! What were they thinking then? Now what are they likely to do?

More importantly, how is this situation going to be resolved?
That is the critical question that may be determined at tomorrow's Port meeting.
I hope Charlie Sheldon will agree to return to duty, but the hasty action already taken and the adverse publicity from it may mitigate against such a decision.
If Sheldon doesn't return, the Port will likely need yet another interim Director, before going to the expense of another costly recruiting exercise. Then what? Another repeated fiasco?

Long term, the solution belongs to us voters. Be careful who you elect!
Scott Walker ought to be encouraged to resign, but that might be a more difficult course to steer, since he's already been around over 20 years.
Rob Fix, the CFO and possible new interim Port Director, has been around only three years and seems to lack essential qualifications for this office.

I hope citizens will again show up at the Port Commission meeting tomorrow at 3 PM to again show tangible support for retaining Charlie Sheldon as the Port's Executive Director.
This Commission desperately needs unmistakable public encouragement to get its affairs in order.
Let's give them that encouragement, especially Commissioner Jorgenson, who is usually, a very reasonable man who really cares about our community and the important role the Port of Bellingham plays in it.