Along with choosing a president and a governor this November, Whatcom County voters will decide whether to add two new commissioners to the Port of Bellingham's governing elected body.
The countywide port district is now governed by three commissioners elected from the same three districts that choose County Council members. If the port's Proposition 1 passes this November, the county would be carved up into five port commissioner districts, and two new commissioners would be chosen at the polls in November 2013.
Citizen activists and port critics have advocated an expanded port commission for many years, but the idea got renewed momentum beginning in April 2012 when former Port Executive Director Charlie Sheldon was forced out of his job in a 2-1 commission vote. Jim Jorgensen joined Sheldon foe Scott Walker to make the move.
Citizens unhappy about Sheldon's firing began collecting signatures to get a port commission expansion measure on the ballot, but Jorgensen and the third commissioner, Mike McAuley, then agreed to forgo the signature process and put the expansion proposal before voters.
The expansion idea has supporters across a wide range of the political spectrum, from Tip Johnson - a longtime port critic and former Bellingham City Council member - to Bill Geyer, a former city planning director-turned-developer who has become a frequent advocate of more business-friendly policies at City Hall. Former mayors Dan Pike and Ken Hertz also have spoken out in favor.
Geyer contends that a five-member port commission will provide better financial oversight and decision-making.
He hopes that a five-member commission would designate two of its members as a finance committee that would be charged with paying close attention to port finances and the return on public assets that include Bellingham International Airport, marinas in both Bellingham and Blaine, and waterfront real estate holdings that cover much of the city's Bellingham Bay waterfront.
Those waterfront holdings include the sites of a deep-water shipping terminal, Fairhaven Shipyard, All-American Marine boat builders, smaller boat servicing facilities and the Bellingham Cold Storage site. The port also owns 137 acres of now-idle industrial land once used by the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill.
Geyer argues that additional commissioners will bring valuable added ideas and perspectives.
"Competition of ideas brings better solutions," Geyer said.
Doug Smith, who served 16 years as a port commissioner before he lost his seat to McAuley in 2009, isn't convinced.
As Smith sees it, the three-member structure assures that the port's business is discussed only in official meetings, since any discussion of port business by two commissioners is a legal quorum covered by state open meetings laws.
"Two commissioners on a three-member commission are not allowed to discuss any issues related to the port in private," Smith said.
Smith also fears that a five-member commission might be more subject to political impulses and less inclined to focus on the port's key mission to create jobs. He would prefer a port commission that continues that focus, without being distracted by neighborhood concerns that are better addressed by city and county governments through their zoning and permitting powers.
Smith thinks the port expansion effort is being spearheaded by Bellingham activists who would try to turn the port into more of a "general-purpose municipality" that will emphasize "gentrification of the area" instead of an engine for job creation.
"I don't know that those people are really interested in seeing to it that the people who have a commercial fishing boat have a place to moor it that is competitively priced," Smith said.
Geyer doesn't think there is much risk of a major shift away from economic development at the port. He notes that the port is already responding to broader community concerns by building waterfront parks and trails, because those projects add value to the port's own holdings as well as adjoining private property. Ultimately, Geyer said, the port's agenda should be up to Whatcom County voters.
"We get the governance we elect," Geyer said. "A lot of the population wants to have growth and wants to have jobs."
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