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Jon Talton

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

February 27, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Port commission needs to raise more than its salary

“The voters have spoken, the bastards.” So goes the immortal line from the late Mo Udall, Arizona congressman and presidential candidate (also attributed to Dick Tuck).

I think of this when I read about Port of Seattle Commission President Tom Albro suggesting that commissioners need a raise, from $6,000 to $42,000 a year. This is a perfect opportunity to write a shallow and wrong anti-gub’ment piece. In fact, the commissioners should get decent pay to do this important job. But there’s always the risk of a Rob Holland, who was elected with a comfortable majority yet was, at the least, over his head. He has since resigned after his boatload of problems became public. The voters…the bastards. That said, the remaining commissioners, Albro, Bill Bryant and John Creighton are good public servants with a grasp of the port’s complex operations and its challenges. The commission needs two new members with similar skills and knowledge. Other world views and background should be welcome. What’s less welcome is using the commission as a mere springboard to higher political office or as a platform for speechifying. If a better salary attracts good candidates, it’s money well spent.

Still, the commission needs to raise more than its salaries. The Port of Seattle is in the fight of its life. Tacoma, with an otherwise underperforming economy, will do whatever it takes to support its seaport. If that means underbidding every port on the West Coast for container traffic, even if it requires essentially subsidizing its terminal operators, so be it. This strategy allowed it to win the Grand Alliance and Hamburg Sud shipping lines from Seattle, even though the rivalry is poisonous to the region’s overall competitiveness. The wider Panama Canal will allow large container ships to bypass the West Coast entirely, to reach Gulf and East Coast ports that will use Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues to improve their infrastructure. Prince Rupert, B.C. is building its container port with an aggressive public-private partnership. In Seattle, thousands of well-paid jobs are at risk.

So far, the port commission’s response has been inadequate. It didn’t even try to engage in the public relations battle over supposed “independent contractor” short-haul truckers who work in abysmal conditions (a confrontation going on during negotiations with the Grand Alliance). Commissioners could at least have expressed some moral outrage and used that suasion against the trucking owners. They could have pushed to find a way to get some portable latrines for the truckers to use. They could work harder to not just keep the “family wage” jobs now supported by the port, but widen the circle of prosperity. Or at least seem to be trying. Instead, the port was astonishingly absent from the debate, leaving the high ground to the Teamsters.

The port could have done more to educate the voters about the value of the seaport and the need for greater public support, in order to compete against Tacoma — and LA/Long Beach, which is engaged in major infrastructure projects to protect itself from the sea change when the wider Panama opens. Instead, it chose to use a very public blunderbuss against the proposed Sonics arena. This alienated public support and made enemies among other influential leaders who should be allies of the port. There are meaningful arguments to be made against the Sodo site. But better that commissioners work the levers behind the scenes, and at the least come out with the transportation infrastructure that was promised when Safeco Field was built. It’s just wrong to assume the seaport and arena can’t co-exist. Or that Seattle will “so a San Francisco,” become a tourist/yuppie waterfront and send its gritty port business to Tacoma, playing the part of Oakland (with no BART connection and less “there” there). This will only happen if the Seattle port leadership continues its recent sleepwalk.

Commissioners confront an overly bureaucratic organization, highly risk-averse, with a talented CEO in Tay Yoshitani who nonetheless is uncomfortable being what is so needed, the port’s biggest public salesman. Everybody can hide behind the port’s other function, running Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, or talk about the cruise industry (See Triumph, Carnival). Leadership faces endless headaches about how to best use available real estate. Lots of contending stakeholders are at the table. Building consensus on the commission is difficult. But the big deal is that the seaport, one of the region’s prime economic assets, is at a tipping point. Having a complete understanding of this and some intelligent responses should be the first qualifying measure for new commissioners. Do that, and the pay is no problem. After all, you get what you pay for.

And Don’t Miss: How the 100-year-old income tax unleashed the modern U.S. economy | The Atlantic

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Think of the outrage

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