BELLINGHAM - Less than two weeks after holding a public forum to introduce three finalists for the job of Port of Bellingham executive director, Bellingham's three port commissioners have named a different person - Rob Fix - to the $140,000-a-year position.
The 46-year-old Fix joined the port as chief financial officer in 2008. He had been serving as interim executive director since the April 2012 ouster of former director Charlie Sheldon. During that interim, Fix had helped negotiate a complex waterfront land swap with the city of Bellingham.
In naming Fix to the post, all three commissioners said Fix's handling of waterfront negotiations with the city had been a big factor in their decision to appoint him.
But after Sheldon's tumultuous departure, Port Commission President Scott Walker had said that Fix was not interested in taking the job permanently.
"He (Fix) doesn't like the politics involved, and I don't blame him," Walker said at the time.
Fix also played some role in Sheldon's departure, although his role does not appear to have been critical. In April, Walker confirmed that he had conversations with Fix and Mike Stoner, the port's environmental director, during the weekend before Sheldon was forced to resign. Fix had acknowledged talking to all three commissioners that weekend about Sheldon.
Walker had been trying to force Sheldon out for months before those weekend conversations apparently helped to convince Commissioner Jim Jorgensen to join Walker in calling for Sheldon's departure. At that time, the third commissioner, Mike McAuley, had castigated Walker and Jorgensen for their handling of Sheldon's dismissal. McAuley insisted that the staff complaints he had heard were not serious enough to justify Sheldon's ouster.
"That is not good government and not good public process," McAuley said in April.
But on Friday, Nov. 9, all three commissioners defended their decision to hire Fix and brush aside the public process they had conducted on Oct. 29 and the days that followed.
"Actually I think it's a great public process," Walker said. "We could have made a decision (to hire Fix) last spring. We decided to cast the net wider. ... At the time this process started, Rob had not shown any interest in the job. ... I think in our minds he was always a possibility."
"Rob was a bit more of a known quantity that we could work with and move forward," McAuley said after Friday's meeting. "We've all felt from the beginning that Rob was capable of doing the work. ... So that's what we've been discussing for the last week. ... I don't feel like the process is a mockery."
Jorgensen also expressed satisfaction with the process and the outcome.
"We didn't feel like we were cheating anybody," Jorgensen said. "We felt like we were doing the best selection we could do."
Commissioners had been scheduled to announce their choice for executive director at their Tuesday, Nov. 6, meeting, but they tabled the matter and announced they would meet again Friday, Nov. 9.
Asked if one of the three earlier finalists had rejected the job before the Nov. 6 meeting, all three commissioners initially refused comment. But later, in a telephone interview, McAuley acknowledged that Jonathan Daniels, executive director of the Port of Oswego, N.Y., had been commissioners' unanimous choice.
Daniels, however, removed his name from consideration. In his New York job, McAuley said, Daniels has a lot of freedom to pursue development projects because the public pays little attention to port activities and he does not have to respond to an elected board.
"He didn't feel like he was a good fit for our community," McAuley said. "He has a strong and very direct leadership style."
Daniels did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Daniels and two other finalists for the executive job appeared at the Oct. 29 reception at Bellingham Cruise Terminal. The other two were Les Reardanz, chief administrative officer at the Port of Everett, and William Panos, public works and port director for the city of West Sacramento, Calif.
About 75 people turned out for the reception. All three candidates spoke, and those in attendance filled out evaluation cards that were handed over to the port for supposed use in helping commissioners pick a winner.
Kim Lund, a staffer at Communitywise Bellingham, said she was one of eight people on a port-appointed citizen panel who spent six hours on the following day interviewing Reardanz, Daniels and Panos. She said Fix's name never came up.
Lund said the handling of Fix's appointment was unfortunate at a time when port commissioners are still trying to rebuild public confidence after the Sheldon uproar.
"When they make a surprise announcement like this, I don't think it serves them well in terms of regaining the trust of the public at large," Lund said.
As she saw it, other finalists could have been suitable candidates for the executive job.
McAuley said the other two finalists had their strengths, but after Daniels departed, Fix looked like the best choice. McAuley said Fix had been one of nine semi-finalists for the job before the finalists had been named.
In a telephone interview, Fix said his lack of interest in the position last April had been genuine. But after several months as interim executive, working with Mayor Kelli Linville on waterfront issues and with County Executive Jack Louws on other matters, Fix found himself enjoying the job. Sometime last summer, perhaps August, Fix told commissioners he was interested in taking the job permanently.
After the three finalists were announced, Fix said he assumed his moment had passed.
He did not realize he was back in the running until Friday morning, when commissioners called him in after their closed session to offer him the job.
"If I had to pick a word, I would say I'm honored," Fix said. "I'm also humbled to be given the position."
Asked if the circumstances surrounding Sheldon's departure and his own appointment would hamper his effectiveness, Fix said no.
"People are going to say what they will," Fix said. "People are going to be critical of me. People are critical of the port all the time. It's their prerogative to be critical."
One of those critics is Doug Karlberg, a former port commission candidate who has been active in the effort to expand the port commission to five members. An expansion measure appears to have been narrowly defeated at the polls Nov. 6.
"The public optics of this are just horrible," Karlberg said in an email. "The public's confidence in the port process is shot. ... Having said all of this I know Mr. Fix is a talented guy, but this could have been done, and ... should have been accomplished in a way that bolstered flagging public support, and not this way."
Anne-Marie Faiola, who was active in a failed effort to get commissioners to reinstate Charlie Sheldon, said the same.
"I'm disappointed in the lack of transparency shown by our current port commission," Faiola said. "Rob Fix, while capable, was not listed as one of the final candidates and he did not go through the normal vetting process. ... This lack of transparency will continue to breed mistrust toward the Port of Bellingham."
Tip Johnson, a former Bellingham City Council member, said the handling of Fix's appointment will give new impetus to the years-long effort to expand the port commission. Johnson said he and others will soon begin gathering signatures to force an expansion measure back on the ballot.
Mayor Linville expressed satisfaction with Fix's appointment.
"I'm glad we continue to have a chance to work with him, especially on the waterfront project," Linville said.
Fix previously served as a partner and CFO for two Kirkland-based companies, MTM Luxury Lodging and FST Asset Management. MTM is a hotel management company, while FST is a real estate and investment management company.
From 1999 to 2003, Fix worked at Trillium Corp., primarily as director of finance for the Semiahmoo Hotel Co. Inc.
Fix also was employed by Red Lion Hotels from 1993 to 1998 as corporate financial analyst and as a controller at its Bellevue and Springfield, Ore., hotels.
Fix holds a bachelor's degree from Washington State University's School of Business and Economics.