Fear of flying coach

Port of Seattle officials soar high, golf far, and a "fiscal conservative" blazes the trail.

After Port of Seattle officials recently paid the impound tab for one of its commissioner's illegally parked car—claiming he was too rushed to find a legal parking spot—taxpayers groaned and editorial writers harrumped over the $263.54 cost. Commissioner and Bellevue businessman Clare Nordquist ought to pay his own way, critics muttered.

But a grounded Nordquist is a lot cheaper than an airborne one. The impound tab is peanuts compared to the cost when Nordquist takes to the air. No other Seattle Port commissioner, now and perhaps ever, has flown as often and at such cost as the globe-trotting Nordquist, according to Seattle Weekly's review of travel records—which also turned up a $1,000-a-day "familiarization trip" and golf junket to Japan by the Port's fire chief, and $3,600-a-month travel costs for the Port's $189,576-a-year executive director, Mic Dinsmore.

Only months before Nordquist's car was towed, the rookie commissioner had jetted off to Australia, costing the Port $10,747.92. He also trekked to the United Kingdom for $8,546.00, took a $6,497.16 trip to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and journeyed to China at a cost of $5,965.19 in recent months.

Named (from a list of 70 candidates) by the other Port commissioners last year to replace commissioner-turned-Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, the self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative" has been in the air nine of his first 16 months in office. His 49 nights and 58 days on the road averaged just under $800 a day in expenses and total a whopping $47,326.62 in travel costs.

That's more than twice to three times as much as any fellow commissioner. It's also a lavish unscheduled perk to a part-time position paying $6,000 a year (plus $8,400 in per diem expenses)—to which Nord-quist is seeking reelection this November, with only token opposition.

Nordquist says the jaunts are a bargain: a learning experience that has paid off for the public. "I believe what the public got with my travel is a better-informed commissioner. That, hopefully, translates into better job performance," the rookie commissioner tells the Weekly. In his first year, the Eastside venture capitalist "endeavored to learn as much as possible about the Port of Seattle and its operations, including its international activities. The way you learn this job, as any other, is through face-to-face contact with the Port's international business and government partners."

Nordquist's backers were hoping he'd follow in the footsteps of businessman/tourism promoter Schell—who happened to be a widely traveled commissioner as well. Nordquist appears to have met the business/promotional challenge while far exceeding Schell's efforts at the flight line: The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and convention board official was preparing for takeoff within days of his appointment in mid-January, 1998. He winged off to London and Glasgow on February 20 of last year for a United Kingdom Tourism Mission. He's made eight more trips since.

"Nordquist is following and may yet surpass the footsteps of the master . . . Jack Block," says Port critic and former commission candidate David Ortman (commissioner Block's travel tab since 1991 has easily exceeded $100,000).

While the Port points out that 90,000 regional jobs can be traced to Port operations, Ortman notes that conversely "75 percent of the jobs in this region don't depend on trade" and that such extensive goodwill schmoozing is unnecessary.

Nordquist, cofounder of Materia Ventures in Kirkland, says he "went on more trips because of my desire to get up to speed quickly. In my judgment, they [the trips] were beneficial to me and to the Port of Seattle as well."

That's also Ortman's point: "Nordquist is using tax money from all the citizens of King County for the benefit of the few," he says, "including himself."

The Port claims its representatives must travel to promote trade, make contacts, and study other facilities, and insists such expenses are painless to taxpayers, the costs coming from airport and marine revenues, amounting to $243 million last year. It's a debatable distinction since the public agency was built by and is operated for King County's taxpayers, who contribute $35 million annually. "Commissioner involvement is critical in building relationships with airlines, travel agents, and tour operators," the Port says in a statement to our questions. And Nordquist "brings a unique perspective in dealing with business leaders abroad."

The Weekly's review of 1998-99 Port travel expenses found a front-office itch for far-flung conferences and seminars—the "snow symposium" in Buffalo, an "airport pavement study" in Europe—along with $200- and $300-a-night hotel costs and an apparent fear of flying coach.

For example, Nordquist spent $7,400 for a first class round-trip Australia ticket and $6,790 on a UK flight, while the Port's chief technology officer Bill Swedish spent $6,182 on a round-trip ticket last October to London and the Netherlands for a Y2K conference. Even the Port's aviation director Gina Marie Lindsey spent $1,904 on a one-way ticket to DC.

Haven't these people heard of planning ahead? Or the Internet? (Or, for that matter, Net conferencing?) For comparison—and allowing that restrictions apply to departure days and stay-over time—travel prices last week on the Net were in some cases almost five times cheaper, including round trips to Amsterdam ($752), London ($751), Sydney ($1,434), and DC ($600).

"Often travel plans aren't made in time to qualify travelers for special advanced-purchase discounts," the Port says. "In addition, Port commissioners and employees are allowed to fly business class on trips over five hours long," which virtually assures first-class travel to foreign ports of call.

After those long flights, the Port's goodwill ambassadors sometimes need a break. Special mention goes to Port of Seattle fire chief Tom Barrett, who managed to get in two rounds of golf during three nights of semibusiness in Japan. On a five-day trip (May 19-23, 1998)—two of them travel days—Barrett shelled out $5,166, more than $1,000 a day, in Port money. That included playing golf at two different courses and resting up at hotels with $350-a-night tabs. Port officials called it a "familiarization trip, which is intended to promote existing airline routes . . . the goal is to keep awareness of the route high among those who make travel recommendations or decisions." In its response, the Port did not say if its $99,673-per-year fire chief was now handling tour arrangements (and the word "boondoggle" never came up).

Other highlights:

* Top spender: Full-time executive director Mic Dinsmore spent $55,359 on travel from January 1998 through April this year. Among his jaunts was a week-long international study mission in Australia costing $9,985. He averaged a trip a month.

* More learning experiences: Some officials furthered their education on the Port's tab. Don Lorentz, director of Port economic and trade development, spent $2,500 for tuition at the University of Minnesota for its MBA Advantage Program last August. Tim Collins, manager of Port construction, spent $1,942 to attend a General Manager Program at Harvard this February.

* BC on $375 a day: Commissioner Paige Miller went only as far as Vancouver last October for a Chamber of Commerce event and charged $750 for a two-night stay (that included meals and event fees, the Port says, without breaking out the exact costs)—a bargain by Port standards.

* The long journey to savings: "What Port officials learn on their travels," the Port says in its statement, "has helped make this organization more efficient." And all at deluxe rates.

The busy skies

Port of Seattle executive travel, 1998 through April 1999:

Commissioners

Trips (where, total taken)

Total Expenses

Clare Nordquist

Australia, China, DC,twice to Holland, South/Midwest US, UK (9)

$47,326

Paige Miller

Australia, BC, Beijing, DC, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore (7)

$19,684

Pat Davis

China/Japan, DC, Singapore (3)

$15,989

Jack Block

China, Holland, San Diego, twice to San Francisco, Vancouver (6)

$14,001

Gary Grant

China, DC, Detroit, twice to Holland (6)

$13,976

Selected Port execs

M. Dinsmore, Exec. Dir.

Australia, BC, five to CA, China, FL/DC, Holland, Midwest US, NE, OR, TX, twice to UK (16)

$55,359

Tim Collins, Construct.

Atlanta, Boston, CA, Seoul/Hong Kong, twice to Vegas (6)

$7,200

T.A. Barrett, Fire Dept.

Japan, Phoenix, SC (3)

$7,063

G.M. Lindsey, SeaTac

Australia, DC (2)

$2,366

 
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