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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

August 29, 2012 at 9:50 AM

What is the Port of Seattle thinking?

As we head up to Labor Day, it’s good to know that at least one guy has a job. Two, actually. Tay Yoshitani has his position as chief executive of the Port of Seattle, paying almost $367,000 a year. Now he’s also a board member of Expeditors International, making another $230,000.

Not surprisingly, the side gig is being questioned by 13 King County legislators. In a letter to port commissioners, the lawmakers state, “It appears to the public that Mr. Yoshitani may directly and personally benefit by giving Expeditors’ customers a competitive advantage over other Port of Seattle customers,” the letter states. “[A]s Port CEO he has the power to prioritize his personal profit over the public mission of the taxpayer-supported Port of Seattle.”

The port’s response? No problem. Yoshitani’s contract allows him to serve on corporate boards on his own time. And, according to Commissioner Tom Albro, the Expeditors position “was reviewed by the port’s general counsel to ensure compliance with the port’s Code of Conduct for employees and for any potential conflict of interest before he joined the board.” I’m not a lawyer, but this doesn’t pass the smell test, much less the common sense test.

As the self-proclaimed “travel agent for freight,” Expeditors would be involved in a raft of direct and indirect business touching the port. No potential conflict of interest? In a by-no-means exhaustive look at other major ports, I couldn’t find another example. Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, served on a board: Of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. At the Port of Los Angeles, chief Geraldine Knatz also was on a board, the American Association of Port Authorities. But I can’t find one who is a director of a publicly traded corporation, much less one involved in the shipping business.

What are the port leaders, and specifically Yoshitani, a smart and capable man, thinking? The seaport has just suffered the loss of a major portion of its container business, with the move of the Grand Alliance to Tacoma. In the dispute over the horrid conditions facing drayage truck drivers, a shameful example of the exploitation of “independent contractors,” the port came off as insensitive and out of touch. Meanwhile, the Century Agenda, while a fine aspirational document, still lacks specifics about how the seaport will face growing competitive threats. Among them: the wider Panama Canal, Prince Rupert and Tacoma. Amid all this, the port chose a very public battle against the proposed Sonics arena, as if it’s an “either/or” choice, rather than working constructively behind the scenes to ensure improved infrastructure and protection of industrial zoning. These challenges wouldn’t seem to leave much “on his own time” time for Yoshitani to be moonlighting.

It would be harsh to wonder if Yoshitani sees disarray and dysfunction at his employer and has decided to cash in while he can. But people are wondering just that. It’s time for the port to remember, as it parses “conflicts of interest,” that it serves the public interest.

And Don’t Miss: Making Europe work || Project Syndicate

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Chris Christie talks big

New Jersey’s jobless rate: Big

Big Tampa snow job

Comments | More in Corporate governance, Port of Seattle drivers shutdown, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma

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