Saturday, January 26, 2013

Is the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight running the Port of Bremerton?

Is it just me, or does the Port of Bremerton remind anyone else of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight? For years, I’ve said that there isn’t a way for the local Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot they hadn’t thought of, but that I have great confidence in their ability to invent new ones. I’m beginning to think the Port of Bremerton falls into that exact same category.

Beginning with the stealth tax that built the money-losing Bremerton Marina, to its latest insult to the people paying the bills — an arrogant refusal to honor a Public Records Request — it’s no wonder the public has zero confidence in the Port’s current management.

When the Port hired former Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman as its CEO, it looked like the beginning of a new era, where forward thinking would finally prevail. Bozeman’s resignation as Mayor and hiring as CEO seemed to me at the time to be a stroke of genius on someone’s part.

Bozeman was facing re-election, which I believe he would have won handily in spite of naysayers about the infamous tunnel, but would have faced four years with an economy that had tanked and brought downtown redevelopment — his personal passion — to a halt. In spite of his critics, I believe Bozeman is a true leader — a big picture guy with extraordinary vision. While no one will accuse him of being detail oriented, he knows how to get things done, and surrounds himself with people who understand visionary thinking and know how to handle details that turn vision into reality.

With the voters angry at the Port over the tax to build the marina, and because of the economy, no projected money on the horizon for the City to move downtown redevelopment forward, the move to the Port appeared to be a win/win.

However, until Bozeman arrived, no one really understood just how furtively mismanaged the Port had been. It was sitting on a huge empty building it was ill-advised to build in the first place, costing taxpayers more than $20,000 a month, and eventually leased at significantly less than local market rates just to stem some of the bleeding. It was losing money on both marinas, the airport, and had empty buildings at the Olympic View Industrial Park.

For two years, Bozeman was forbidden by his bosses — the Port Commissioners — to spend any money on new initiatives. In one discussion we had, he said what the Port really needs is an experienced entrepreneur running it, and Commissioners willing to invest money to make money. Bozeman retired at the end of his contract, and in my view, the Port lost a tremendous opportunity to fix its problems because the Commissioners are obsessed with not spending any money.

When the Commissioners tapped second in command, Tim Thomson, to take over as CEO, I believed it was another misstep. I’ve known Tim for about 20 years. He’s a really nice guy, a good administrator, but the wrong guy for the job. He’s retired military, with no real entrepreneurial experience. He’s used to taking orders — and not challenging them. So standing up to strong, irascible personalities like Commissioner Larry Stokes — a financial conservative, as is Commissioner, Axel Strakeljahn — just isn’t in his DNA. He’s a guy caught between a rock and hard place.

The Port’s recent proposal to turn the money-losing Bremerton Marina over to private enterprise seemed to me to be one of their rare good ideas. However, the Port’s insistence the private operator keep the Port’s current level of unionized staffing, coupled with the expectation the Port would make a profit on the private operation, made this a non-starter.

If there was a profit to be made, why didn’t the Port just make the changes necessary to do so? Also, it seems to me, just getting out from under losing $1,000+ a day would improve the Port’s bottom line even if it didn’t make a nickel off the private operation.

In an attempt to learn more about exactly how the Port expected to pull this miracle off, I submitted a public-documents request for copies of the two responses to the Port’s RFP — submitted by Marsh Andersen LLC and its principal owner, Robert Wise of Bainbridge Island, and Marinas International Inc. of Dallas. Rachel Pritchett of the Kitsap Sun also submitted the same request, the same day.

Business Journal Editor Tim Kelly, had previously been led to believe that both Wise and Marinas International would be interested in not just managing, but actually purchasing the marina that cost taxpayers $34 million to build, if it were to be made available, and if the numbers involved to strike a deal worked for them.

Any information about a sale would be exempted by law from the Public Records request, and the Port would not have to release those parts of the documents. However, a sale was not what the RFP called for, so the proposals should have been released.

However, the Port's management didn’t see it that way. So Rachel agreed to contact Tim Ford, the state’s assistant attorney general for government accountability, and share his opinion with me. I also copied Ford on my own communications with the Port. Ford said the proposals are public, and suggested asking for supporting legal citation, if the port refused our requests.

Rachel and I both received an email from the port stating that, “public release of (request for proposal) responses prior to port commission action could result in private gain or public loss by disclosing critical private proprietary terms, conditions and values that may be used in future negotiations with the port.” There was no supporting legal citation, and reading the proposals, it became abundantly clear that just isn’t the truth. While not an outright denial, it strongly indicates a determined unwillingness to share public information.

To his credit, Port Commissioner Roger Zabinski strongly supported immediately releasing the documents and lobbied for the Port to do so, but was overruled.

In the end, the Port rejected both proposals. So while the Port complied with the letter of the Public Disclosure law, it certainly didn't hesitate to violate the spirit of it — an action arrogantly reminiscent of the stealth tax.