The Port in a Storm

The races for Seattle Port Commission might change the direction of King County's billion-dollar, economic-development government.

Why should you care about the races for Seattle Port Commission? Because the quality of air and water around Puget Sound, thousands of blue-collar, family-wage jobs, and $64 million in property taxes are in play. But there is, of course, much more to the largely invisible but extremely important King County government. Even its name obscures its function.

The Port of Seattle was created by the citizens of King County in 1911, and it owns 1,400 acres along Puget Sound, including:

• Shilshole Bay Marina in Ballard.

• Fishermen's Terminal on Salmon Bay.

• The cruise ship berths at the Bell Street Pier downtown.

• The cargo container facility at Terminal 46 in SoDo.

• All the shipping and other marine activity on Harbor Island at the mouth of the Duwamish River.

One million, eight hundred thousand cargo containers passed through the Port's terminals last year, and 560,000 cruise ship passengers visited Seattle. The Port also owns and operates Seattle- Tacoma International Airport, which was used by 28.8 million passengers in 2004.

All the airplanes, cargo container ships, cruise ships, trucks, and trains associated with the Port have a huge impact on our economy and our environment. The combined annual budget for operations and capital expenditures is more than $1 billion.

The Port's legislative body is the Seattle Port Commission—a part-time, five- member panel elected to four-year terms by King County voters. The commission has only two staff people. While the Port's 1,600 professional employees are supposed to do the bidding of the commissioners, it frequently seems like unelected Port CEO Mic Dinsmore and his people are the dominant members of the government.

Four years ago, a blue-green alliance of the King County Labor Council and Washington Conservation Voters set out to reform the Port Commission by electing candidates who shared a commitment to open government, family-wage jobs, and environmental stewardship. In 2001, the reformers got Lawrence Molloy, a voluble engineer, elected over longtime commissioner and union leader Jack Block. In 2003, the blue-green team won another upset when brainy, mayoral policy adviser Alec Fisken beat incumbent commissioner and venture capitalist Clare Nordquist.

This year, three of the five commission seats are on the ballot, and the reformers hope to take control. The labor-environmental alliance wants to re-elect Molloy over attorney John Creighton for Position 1 and oust 20-year incumbent Pat Davis in favor of former Microsoft assistant treasurer Jack Jolley for Position 4. But it hasn't come to agree on a candidate for the open-seat race between former Seattle City Treasurer Lloyd Hara and marine lobbyist Rich Berkowitz for Position 3.

Over the Past couple of years, Fisken and Molloy have pursued policies that are not immediately recognizable as liberal or conservative and sometimes don't even seem consistent or understandable. Fisken likes to joke that he is reactionary—and his opponents, like Commissioner Davis, insist that he is. Fisken's and Molloy's most important battles in the past few years have involved defense: They have stopped things from happening in real-estate development.

The Port traditionally has had two lines of business—marine and aviation. In 2003, the Port created a new Division of Economic Development to convert some of its extensive marine-industrial holdings into mixed-use waterfront yuppie playground developments. The Port did not make money on its previous effort at real-estate development—most notably along the central waterfront with the World Trade Center West and the Seattle Marriott Waterfront.

Naturally, the maritime unions supporting Fisken and Molloy are opposed to the conversion of industrial land to mixed use. Fisken and Molloy have been leaders in stopping developer Frank Stagen's conversion of Terminal 46 from working waterfront to a new-urban wonderland of shops, parks, offices, condos, and a sports arena. (See "So Long SoDo," April 28, 2004.) They prevented the Port from investing in Bellevue's convention center, and they have slowed and altered the Port's North Bay development, which would have converted 57 upland acres at Terminal 91 in Interbay to offices, housing, and retail.

Molloy and Fisken combine a back- to-basics approach with innovation. They want the Port to improve the bottom line in the marine-cargo and airport businesses, be a better environmental steward, extend benefits to domestic partners, and give up a $62 million annual property tax levy.

Unfortunately, neither Fisken nor Molloy has proved adept at using the commission as a bully pulpit to communicate with the public about their agenda. Fisken, who has a blog (seattleportwatch.blogspot.com), is so restrained that he almost seems embarrassed to draw attention to himself. He also revels in the obscure. In a recent blog posting, he suggested a top 10 list of reforms that included making commissioners appointed instead of elected and suggesting the commission of the rival Port of Tacoma come to Seattle for a confab. Molloy talks fast and throws out a million complicated, far-reaching ideas, barely able to contain his enthusiasm—and frequently losing his listeners.

Their failure to penetrate the voters' consciousness became evident on primary election night when Molloy trailed his main challenger for Position 1, attorney John Creighton, 50 percent to 34 percent. The blue-green team also suffered its first outright defeat that night when its candidate for the open seat of Position 3, union leader Peter Coates, finished fourth. The top two candidates in each advanced to the general election.

Molloy says he will be charging back in the general election for Position 1. He made a strategic decision to not spend money in the primary on voter contact. He promises things will be different over the next five weeks. "We have a strong field and mail campaign targeted to labor, environmentalist, gays and lesbians, and Democrats," he says.

For his part, Creighton rejects the idea that the blue-green team represents the public interest. "Business, labor, and environmentalists all have a shared interest in keeping the Port strong," he says. Creighton insists that he has a nonideological, good-government approach that will be better than Molloy's. Creighton admits, however, that he donated money to the re-election campaign of President Bush, worked on conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi's transition team, and has a Republican political consultant, Dan Brady. He claims, however, that he is not a Republican and has the backing of prominent Democrats, including former Gov. Gary Locke and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. Much of Creighton's message is consistent with Molloy's. Creighton backs domestic partner benefits, wants to reduce the Port's tax levy, and wants to improve the Port's environmental record. He differs with Molloy most clearly over real-estate development. He thinks that redeveloping the uplands at Terminal 91 in Interbay might make sense if done properly. "Realistically, that property cannot be used exclusively for maritime purposes," he says.

To make matters more confusing, Creighton sounds a lot like Jack Jolley, the blue-green team's candidate for Position 4. The labor-and-environmental alliance adopted Jolley late, after Coates lost in the primary, and it's easy to see why. Jolley isn't a natural fit with them because he is a Microsoft millionaire who "retired" at age 47. Talking to him is like attending an MBA seminar. Says Jolley, "Modernizing our business practices will benefit the Port's ability to fulfill its mission of economic development. We need a more knowledgeable approach to capital investment and a more rigorous approach to fiscal discipline." Jolley says the Port is a unique institution, a government whose mission is to foster economic development through the movement of people and goods. He believes the Port is failing in that mission. His aviation evidence is that the building spree at Sea-Tac Airport—fancy new terminal remodels and the monumentally expensive third runway—have raised costs to the point where three airlines (Southwest, Alaska, and American) have now made noise about moving to King County International Airport. On the seaport side, Jolley adds, the Port has lost 40 percent of its market share of the container business. Meanwhile, he says the Port has increased taxes by 195 percent since 1985, to almost $62.8 million, but that calculation is not adjusted for inflation.

Incumbent Pat Davis rejects Jolley's critique. "Saying the Port is failing is wrong," she says. She points to the increase in cargo traffic in the past year but doesn't refute the decline over the past 10. She believes Sea-Tac is improving as an airport and is proud of the Port's renovation of Fishermen's Terminal. She points out that she voted with labor to save Terminal 46 from redevelopment and claims that the Port does significant environmental restoration. Davis is incredulous that the green-blue team has rallied behind Jolley. "I'm mystified," she says, "Jack Jolley has no record whatsoever—no background in labor or environment."

It's no mystery why the labor and environmental coalition cannot agree on a candidate in the open seat, Position 3. Both marine lobbyist Rich Berkowitz and former Seattle City Treasurer Lloyd Hara present challenges for any endorser. Berkowitz is the director for Pacific Coast operations of the U.S. Flag Vessel Operators, a consortium of deep-sea and inland waterway boat operators. In other words, he would sit on a government body that does a lot of business with the people who sign his paycheck. That said, Berkowitz is a bright, dedicated guy whose New York working-class roots are right on the surface. As Fisken, who has endorsed him, says admiringly, "Rich knows docks." Berkowitz has also been a maritime union organizer and a policy researcher for the Washington state House Democratic Caucus. He is highly critical of the Port's real-estate development and wants to focus on improving the cargo business. This stand has earned him the backing of the King County Labor Council. His pro-industry stands, which flow from his day job, support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and opposition to the stationing of a rescue tug at Neah Bay. That means he won't get environmental backing.

Hara last held public office in 1992, and his motivation for desiring the Port post is unclear. He has an old-time pol's manner and loves slathering on heaps of rhetoric about the Port's failures, but his pitch is slightly off-key. He says he became concerned about the Port when a contractor friend had trouble receiving payment for his bills from the government. He promises to improve the Port's bottom line, transparency, and service to customers and taxpayers. He notes that he would be the Port's first Asian-American member and clearly wants to participate in trade missions to Asia. The Port commissioners' overseas travel is a sensitive subject among reformers. Neither Molloy nor Fisken has traveled overseas on the taxpayer's dime, but Davis defends the practice as necessary for the successful retention of Port customers. Says Hara: "When you are working in Asia, face-to-face communications are extremely important."

The voters will decide which candidates should steer the Port over the next four years, and then we'll see if the commissioners can agree on a course at all.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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