I used to cover the Port of Seattle Commission for Seattle’s morning newspaper. This was deep in the past century, though, and things have changed. Seattle’s morning paper is no longer the print Post-Intelligencer, and the Port Commission is nothing like it was then, when its diversity was expressed by the difference between labor leader Merle Adlum of the Inlandboatmen and businessman Henry Kotkins of Skyway Luggage. Port Commissioners are political progressives now, and interested in different things.
These days you can watch the commissioners’ meetings online and read transcripts. I have done it for the first three meetings of this calendar year, which amounts to about seven hours. The commissioners’ meetings are no more entertaining than they were back in the Adlum era, but they are certainly different.
The first item of business in the Jan. 10 meeting, after electing the officers of the year, was the proclamation of Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This involves the Port because sometimes women are brought through the airport as virtual captives to work as prostitutes. It was said that the only places these women are alone are in the toilet stalls, and that a phone or panic button might be placed there, but maybe that was not such a good idea, and nobody moved that it be done.
The action the Port Commission took was to issue a proclamation. Mar Brettmann, executive director of Businesses for Ending Slavery and Trafficking (B.E.S.T.), told the commissioners they were doing the right thing. The commissioners voted unanimously to issue the proclamation, and Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa made sure that preventing human trafficking was added to the Port’s Community Engagement Priorities for 2023.
The next meeting, on Jan. 24, began with the proposal of Commissioner Fred Felleman, who is Jewish, to support the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” Bill Mowat, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Seattle, urged the commissioners to adopt the definition, and they did. They passed a resolution urging Port Executive Stephen P. Metruck “to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism when developing policies and training programs to help identify and combat antisemitism.”
Giving the Port a definition of anti-Semitism took 13 minutes. Several definitions, all of them about the same, are available on the internet. Wikipedia offers this: “Antisemitism is hostility to, prejudice towards, or discrimination against Jews.”
At the next meeting, on February 14, the commissioners spent half an hour discussing the importance of Black History Month and the Port’s chapter of Blacks in Government. Commissioner Hamdi Mohamed, who is the first elected official in Washington of Somali descent, said that racism “is baked into our institutions [and] baked into our culture.” Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa said, “It’s incredibly important that we acknowledge that the dream of this nation was built off of the backs and the subjugation of black people.” Nobody accused the Port of racism, though.
Later in the meeting, Port staff presented the Annual Report of the Port’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. One of its milestones was being the first public agency in Washington to establish Juneteenth as a paid holiday — a decision since followed by the state legislature. Another was the requirement that all Port supervisors undergo six hours of racial-equity training.
The Port needs to treat people fairly, so some attention to these matters is good. But social justice is not its principal business, which is to provide places for the movement of passengers and cargo, and to operate Fishermen’s Terminal and Shilshole Marina. The more the commissioners have focused on the new things, the less they could focus on the old ones.
In each of the meetings above, Port commissioners were presented with a batch of business items. On the Jan. 10 meeting, this included a labor contract with Teamsters Local 117, and $5 million for a rental car curbside assistance contract at the airport. On Jan. 24, it was $2 million for snow removal equipment at the airport and $7.1 million for improvements at an airport employee parking lot. These were bundled into a “consent agenda” and passed unanimously and without debate.
Typically, larger issues are offered separately for the commissioners to approve. In the Jan. 10 meeting the project to create an electrical plug-in for cruise ships at Pier 66, so that they won’t burn diesel fuel at the dock, was on the agenda. The project involved stringing a power line from a substation further south on the waterfront, and there had been a cost overrun. Commissioners were asked to provide several millions. The new total for the project was $38 million.
This bothered Commissioner Ryan Calkins. “When I got this memo and read through it, my initial feeling was a little bit of heartache, or heartburn, I should say, about the dollar value. $38 million is a lot of money…”
Earlier, Calkins said, the projected cost had been cut by one-third by connecting Pier 66 to a substation by submarine cable rather than digging a trench. And now that savings was lost to “mitigation,” which frustrated him. “I think I would include myself in this,” he said. “We were a little bit too lax and thinking, ‘Well, it’s out in the water, It’s not really impacting anything,’ when, in fact, those are fishing grounds for our tribal partners… All that said, I began to think to myself, is this, in fact, the best way to spend this money if our higher-order value is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce local air particulate emissions?”
Those were good questions, but he wasn’t asking anyone in particular, and no one answered them. Calkins said a Port staffer convinced him that the money had to be spent. He said, “In spite of my misgivings about the total project cost, I do think it is worth it.”
Commissioner Felleman was impatient with Calkins’ reluctance. “This is sort of a no brainer,” Felleman said. The cost overrun passed unanimously.
At the Feb. 14 meeting, the construction project that the commissioners discussed was at the airport’s International Arrivals terminal. The budget for the work was $102 million, but there was a demand to increase it to $122 million. A $20 million increase was a lot. Jeff Moken, senior manager for airline affairs and aviation properties, said the cost increase was the result of “scope changes that emerged when we learned of regulatory stuff… [that] we did not anticipate in pre-design.”
Janice Zahn, director of engineering services, explained to the commissioners, “We’re learning about how much preconstruction costs we should be planning for and how much design cost we should be planning for…There’s been more lessons learned along the way, and so as we get better at forecasting that, I anticipate that there will be less of those ‘Oops, we now need to come back for more money just for a couple of months.’”
Here was a chance for sharp questions about the planning and the “regulatory stuff,” but the commissioners let it pass. They voted unanimously to spend the extra $20 million. All of the votes I saw in the record were unanimous.
In the Jan. 24 meeting came another cost increase the public might care about: a vote by Port Commissioners to raise their own pay, to apply after each commissioner’s next election. Before 2013, Port Commissioners were paid $6,000 a year, because it was considered a part-time job and a public honor. That meant that only the well-off could afford to do it. In 2013 the salaries of port commissioners were tied to those of state legislators, who also have part-time jobs. Under that rule, the current salary is $57,587 a year plus a per diem of $128 for each day they’re on Port business, up to 120 days, for a total possible pay of $72,947.
The commissioners have decided that’s not enough. “As candidates for Port Commission become more diverse and have more responsibilities to family and non-Port-related work,” says the Port’s memo, “it is necessary to recognize that the part-time commissioner position can be a significant burden for those who are not in retirement or independently wealthy. This per diem rate increase is intended to encourage candidates from more diverse backgrounds, while recognizing that the position has grown into a greater-than-part-time position.”
Under the new formula unanimously approved by Port Commissioners Jan. 24, the per diem rate is raised by 44 percent, to $185, and the number of days they can claim from 120 to 205 a year. The annual maximum per diem goes from $15,360 to $37,925. Add that to the salary, and the total annual pay could be as high as $95,512.
That’s not unreasonable for a commissioner who attends to the Port’s business. Former Port Commissioner Bill Bryant wrote on Crosscut, “A port commissioner must have the capacity to oversee billions of dollars in construction projects. As commissioner, I ran point guard for keeping construction of the $420 million rental car facility on schedule and on budget. Publicly reviewing construction schedules, contractual obligations, contractor claims and budget reports was not headline-grabbing, but it was the job.”
In 2021, Bryant wrote, “I’m uncertain whether this year’s Port Commission candidates understand that. Some say they do, but also talk about offshore wind power, culturally diverse food at Sea-Tac, and getting the port even more involved in promoting social justice. One indication of shifting focus occurred earlier this year when both Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed challengers in these port contests.”
The challengers, Toshiko Hasegawa and Hamdi Mohamed, both won. They have indeed changed the political complexion of the commission, though the other three – Sam Cho, Ryan Calkins, and Fred Felleman – are not entirely different politically. All are a part of the world of King County politics in the 21st century.
The shift in the commissioners’ interests has let some cost overruns slip by, but so far there has been no calamity. Several business spokesmen I talked to said they are less worried now than they were before the Port elections of 2021. “I had a lot of fear, but I haven’t seen a lot of it actually happen,” one of them said. “There are cost overruns, but there are overruns on private projects, too. The work is still getting done.”
Longer-term, however, this let-it-pass behavior raises bigger questions. At the top of the list is a new regional airport, which the region will need at some point in this century. What should the Port, which owns Sea-Tac, be doing to make it happen? On the waterfront, the closure of Ballard Oil Company raises the question of the long-term future of the maritime industries. What sort of waterfront should 21st century Seattle have, and what should the Port be doing to make it happen?
These are not questions of social justice.