Retiring port commissioner Scott Walker blasts Mike McAuley--McAuley replies at length

Posted by JOHN STARK on October 24, 2013 

Port of Bellingham Commissioner Scott Walker, who leaves office at the end of 2013, has announced his endorsement of port commission candidates Dan Robbins and Ken Bell in a written statement that devotes nearly all of its energy to denouncing incumbent Mike McAuley.

McAuley is facing a challenge from Bell as he seeks a second four-year term.

McAuley has issued a detailed written response to Walker. I'm going to post both those written statements here. Walker's is lengthy. McAuley's is much longer. 

Here is Walker's statement, with McAuley's lengthy replies inserted for convenience:

 

Walker: Many of you have asked about who I support in the upcoming Port election. Generally I don't take a public stand if it involves sitting commissioners, but in this case there is no other choice.

I support both Ken Bell and Dan Robbins in the upcoming election. They clearly have the best qualifications, business experience, and mature judgement needed to guide the Port of Bellingham.  I'd prefer to let the main stream media sort this out, but the recent Herald article making the current commission look like old buddies  is a joke.

McAuley : True, we are not buddies. (editor's note: At least they agree on something...)

Walker: Why don't I support Mike McAuley?  If you look at the record, you will know why. I believe that the Port is tasked with operating public facilities and stimulating the local economy in a way that is mindful that public money is being spent, and that is fair to all:

McAuley voted against the decision to allow a hotel to be built at the Bellingham Airport, creating local jobs and meeting the needs of the traveling public.

McAuley reply: True. There were two sites available for a hotel, one with freeway frontage and one just south without, but both on Mitchell Way and adjacent to the terminal parking areas. Mr. Walker was the senior member of the negotiating team representing the port. 

 When appraisals on the two sites were presented the properties were valued exactly the same, which I questioned.  The freeway frontage property was preferred by every proponent because, as Mr. Walker himself stated, it has thousands of cars in front of it and there is basically free advertising of the brand. 

 Also, the frontage site has somewhat mature, native landscaping. The hotel will remove all of the vegetation to the edge of the state right of way along I-5 and regrade the site. There is no landscape plan in the agreement that has been presented to the commission that addresses my concerns.

 My concerns:  the appraisals should have valued the land with freeway frontage at a higher valuation and there needs to be a robust landscaping plan for the property. 

 Landscaping similar to the Tulalip Casino parking areas would be acceptable to me. 

 As for the valuation, Mr. Walker stated that the site provides the hotel brand with free advertising and yet the public was not compensated properly for the more desirable property, in this case the land should have a higher value. 

 If the two sites were equal then why did no proposal choose the other site?

 Mr. Walker would like you to believe I just voted “No” without explanation.  The record is clear and I made myself clear to the proponents, who left that particular meeting assured that I like the project I just didn’t like the deal Mr.  Walker’s selection committee put together.   

  If you like, I can get a transcript for any person wishing to hear my exact words.

 Walker: McAuley voted against the partnership with Western Washington University to create a waterfront campus and stimulate further development on that site by private investors. Every potential developer that has been interested in the waterfront project says that having Western's commitment is a huge factor in making the overall development a success.

McAuley: False and not even close to true.  I voted against giving 6 acres of land to Western Crossing, which is not Western Washington University.

 There is an incredibly important distinction between WWU and Western Crossing which Mr. Walker conveniently fails to describe.  Western Crossing is a development entity with a handful of university and port board members representing the port, Mr. Walker is a board member.

 Western Crossing exists to take advantage of public/private partnerships so that the private sector can construct the buildings and the university guarantees the owner a lease for a certain period of time.  It’s a bit more complicated than that but, suffice to say, I support the arrangement – it’s good for the builder and the university.                

 Now, regarding Western’s waterfront plans.  I have been unequivocal on this since 2009, where, in that election I stated that WWU needed to present a better plan.  I haven’t shifted positions.

 I voted “No” earlier this year against a grant of 6 acres of waterfront land via a very convoluted partnership between the port and Western Crossing.  I didn’t support the land grant in the center of the former GP property because, as of the time of that vote, WWU didn’t have a plan for using that property.  Furthermore, they pulled the old plan off the university president’s web pages, which is the only location it had ever been for several previous years. 

 When the vote occurred to grant this land to WWU’s Western Crossing development arm, of which Mr. Walker is a member (he is also a member of another WWU board), Western Crossing’s plan did not exist online any more. After the news reported my position against the land grant, the White Paper reappeared but it was the same old ‘position’ paper, which is not a plan.  And it’s not funded.

 The Western Crossing board, with guidance by Mr. Walker,  made a ‘down-payment’ by pledging to sell a piece of land at the corner of Bakerview and Hannegan roads.  That property has an appraisal but that doesn’t means it’s worth that amount.  It could be less, it could be more, but I can’t recall a single time in the last 4 years the port granted a piece of property or even a retail location to ANY entity without hard money in play.  

 All the public has here is a promise by Western to sell that land, transfer the funds to Western Crossing and apply whatever money from the sale to the waterfront –  I drive by that property on Hannegan and Bakerview twice every day and there is no for sale sign on that property,  

 To add insult to injury, I met shortly after that vote with a university VP engaged in the waterfront process.  I said that I would like to push the commission to get the Boardmill building remodeled and Laurel St reopened to support Western’s efforts to establish a presence on the waterfront.    Why did I do that? 

 Well, the Boardmill is in Western Crossing’s 6 acres, it’s has great reuse potential, they wouldn’t need to pay for a whole new structure or deal with the delays getting one designed and permitted and it would get them down there sooner.  I may have lost the vote but I’m not against WWU, in fact I’ve been the most vocal commissioner on getting them to light a little fire under them and get a move on.

 Oddly, the particular VP I was talking with, and our executive director was at this meeting so it’s been witnessed, looked at me as if I was way off base.  I asked him if my proposal to get WWU in the Boardmill would work, he responded, puzzled that I suggested it, by telling me that “everyone” working on the project keeps pushing WWU north into the 11 acres site in the RFP, adjacent to the Western Crossing land.

 His answer surprised me. I mean, the commission voted to grant 6 acres of land, with an existing, perfectly reusable structure on it, no less, that Western could put to use in less than a year and at the same time Western is being asked to locate closer to the Granary in a brand new, privately built and owned structure to ‘help’ get the Downtown Waterfront established.

 Fine, OK, so WWU anchors the Downtown Waterfront next to the Granary, then when exactly is the 6 acres going to be developed? And if Western is expected to lease space in the Downtown Waterfront north of the Western Crossing land grant, then why do they need 6 acres when they have no plan for the 6 acres?  It’s been 8 years, for crying out loud, how much longer do we have to wait? 

 The entire deal is sketchy and convoluted. Not only that, but in the past 4 years this port has turned away less sketchy deals.  So what gives?

 I support Western, I want them to use our waterfront to, as I have told the leadership there, ‘knock it out of the park’.  To date I have seen only a very, very odd land deal and a years old white paper with vague ideas written on it.

 So, community, help me out here, let Western know what you think about how they can ‘knock it out of the park’ on Bellingham’s waterfront, something that makes a statement worldwide, that they can be proud of and use as a tool to attract talent and students.

That’s what I’d like to see happen anyway. 

  Walker: McAuley voted to stop final negotiations for an environmental permit to allow cleanup of the Whatcom Waterway.  After eight years and $5,000,000 dolllars of public money spent on consultants, studies, sampling and transaction costs, he wanted to start over! This would have doomed this project for many years, as the Department of Ecology is both a regulatory agency and a funder for us.  If we had withdrawn at this date, we would be going to the back of the line as the DOE engages with other ports and cities that it deems more reliable.

McAuley: Not even close to true.  The plan, which predates my time on the commission, belongs to commissioners Jorgenson, Smith and Walker.  In that plan, the waterway will be mostly capped, there will be a channel for barging to the C St Terminal (best known as Colony Wharf), a crane pad for loading barges will be created, the shoreline at the  C St Terminal will be cut back and a new sheetpile edge created. Also, there is to be dredging at the Shipping Terminal where the black Horizon Lines ship is moored.

 My opposition on this terrible plan is based on the following.

 1.       The port fanatically bundles projects together which means if anything needs to change it cannot without throwing the entire project out.  Tying the Shipping Terminal dredge to the inner waterway dredge makes sense but if there is a problem with the plan at the sheet pile wall or crane pad area the plan cannot be easily rearranged without putting the Shipping Terminal dredge at risk.

 So when I suggest we need a better sheet pile wall, which is change to the plan, that somehow means we can’t dredge the Shipping Terminal half a mile away. I’m not just making this up, staff reported this and I can get you the transcript from our meeting.

 2.      Several weeks ago a Bellingham Marine Industries barge load out was interrupted by shallow water, that barge sat on the bottom for half a day. This risks the vessel, costs money in delays and creates environmental hazards that the Department of Natural Resources is very, very interested in. 

 According to the folks who work down there, the water depth where that barge sat on the bottom is a minus 8, clearly not deep enough to support commerce.  After the ‘cleanup’ the water will be….minus 8.  What?  We have a plan that cost $5 million that won’t improve the water depth even though the dredge will be done? 

 How does that make any sense?

 3.      There is one and only one location in this county to drive wheeled vehicles onto or off of a barge, it’s called RO/RO (roll on/roll off).  That ramp is at the C St Terminal.  When this plan came in front of me I noticed that the ramp is to be removed and replaced with a crane pad capable of supporting up to 250 ton lifts.  So, what happened to the barge ramp? 

 Initial, verbal, staff reports by 2 senior staff led me to understand that there are only a handful of barges that use that ramp and that activity can easily be accommodated by a crane at the crane pad.    Truth checking that with Colony Wharf staff who have operated and maintained that barge ramp for several decades showed that initial staff reports were grossly in error. 

 In fact, just ONE barge loaded with gypsum (a necessary ingredient in every batch of concrete here in Whatcom County) will need access to as many as 50 trucks that can haul 30 tons of the product up to the concrete plant on Marine Drive.  So, one barge, just that ONE barge arriving once, sometimes twice per YEAR, has shown me that staff got it wrong, that gypsum barge can’t affordably be unloaded by a crane.

 And that’s just the gypsum barge, there are many, many barges that need this ramp all throughout the year.  So why did the plan not include a ramp replacement? 

 When I questioned this, staff scrambled to find a ‘change’ that would be acceptable to the permitting agencies and, I’m told but it’s not proven yet, that they have a workaround that pushes barges even further offshore. That workaround adds cost and complexity to the project. 

 I won’t speculate on why staff didn’t include basic, necessary infrastructure in the plan given that that is the port’s role but the plan was established under the watchful eyes of Mr Walker.

 4.      Staff reported to the commission that state agencies forbid a locally based landing craft type of barge that carries product to Alaska from using the C St Terminal area where for years that craft has been pulling up to the shore, dropping its ramp and loading up for Alaska. 

 Staff were wrong, I verified this myself with the state’s natural resources management people in charge of this area.  It is perfectly legal for that barge to load out where it has for many years. 

 The bad part, however, is that port staff told the commission that the barge couldn’t load out there, so when Bellingham Marine Industries asked to lease the adjacent land, cutting off access to that loadout area, the commission wasn’t worried about hurting that business. After all, according to staff, they were operating illegally, right? 

 Wrong.

 Staff was dead wrong and based on bad information I voted in favor of leasing land to BMI that now cuts off access for that landing craft barge.  Yes, I am upset. 

 5.      The port asked the federal government to de-authorize the inner waterway just upstream from the Shipping Terminal so it no longer has federal status.  I saw that as a positive action because it meant more local control with fewer federal strings

attached. 

 In the ‘cleanup’ plan the channel will only go as far as the traditional boat haul out at Colony Wharf, even though there is a very real need to continue the dredge further upstream so the boats bringing crab to Premier Harvest, literally next door to Colony Wharf’s haul out, aren’t stuck in the mud – I am not making that up, the boats hit the bottom. 

 Mr. Walker’s response to Premier Harvest was to suggest they rent a port owned building in Fairhaven, which they are now doing, because the cleanup plan won’t provide a channel for waterborne commerce to a commercial building that relies on water access to unload crab from the crab boat. 

 There has been a channel in front of the Premier Harvest building since the birth of Bellingham, and now, with local control firmly in hand, the Port of Bellingham commission has decided that it will be allowed to silt in.  So much for “fulfill[ing] the essential transportation needs” of Whatcom County, as stated in the Port’s mission statement.

 6.      Both BMI and The Landings at Colony Wharf oppose the plan.

 7.      The sheet pile wall is so weak that it’s being designed with breakaway cleats so a surging barge won’t pull it over.

 8.      Even though the land use allows for work right to the water’s edge (zero setback) I can’t even park my work van, a GMC with a 14 foot box, next to the sheet pile wall because it weighs too much.  So, why ask the city for a zero setback then not build a wall strong enough to park the most basic truck next to it?

 9.      The plan pulls the shoreline back nearly 40 for a 1000 foot stretch of shoreline.  So, the port is supposed to build infrastructure and we do that by removing almost an acre of waterfront edge? There is no requirement by any agency to pull that edge back, it was built into the plan from the beginning and the agencies supported it, that’s not that same as them requiring it.

 10.  The plan assumes, but does not guarantee, that the port will put in a travel lift pier similar to the same as done at the Sea View North site (formerly WeldCraft). That project was a multi-million dollar effort and allows Sea View exclusive use of the most modern haulout in Bellingham Bay.

 So, what’s my plan? 

 1.      Dredge more, cap less in the waterway.   Minus 8 isn’t even close to deep enough.

 2.      Provide a channel so that commercial boats can continue accessing the fish processing (now crab) plant as they have done, until now anyway, for over a hundred years.

 3.      Keep the shoreline where it is, it’s not harming the environment any more by remaining where it is.  Pulling the shoreline back doesn’t add habitat, either, since it’s a heavily used barge and marine trades area.  We need that acre of waterfront to support commerce.

 4.      Install a stronger sheet pile wall so that something weighing more than 100 pounds per square foot can operate right to the water’s edge.  And maybe a barge can tie off.   The port fought dearly with the City over that zero setback so why not use it properly.

 5.      DO NOT build a new travel lift pier ‘someday’.  That is more costly, requires long permitting times and adds even more structure in a cluttered waterway.

 Instead, remove the existing barge ramp which is 100% over water now, dig the mud out under its old spot, sheet pile the ‘notch’ in the bank where the ramp was and give the sidewalls enough strength to support a travel lift. 

 Here’s the beauty of this plan – NO new over water coverage meaning no permitting issues and we don’t have to dip into our ‘bank’ of overwater coverage allowance.  It’s cheaper than ANY alternative the port has offered, it keeps infrastructure from sticking OUT into the busy water way and it is much, much kinder to the environment.  If you need the ramp, it’s a simple carry by the travel lift to set it in place and you can then Ro/Ro the barge.  

So, the port creates a lousy plan that port tenants don’t like, it is more costly in the long run, removes infrastructure, makes it harder to access the waterway and only offer promises to put the infrastructure back someday.  Of course I opposed it.

Now for some good news, my modifications require only modest corrections to the plan, claims to the contrary border on out and out lies.  Since my suggestions don’t add any new in water work but do dredge out more sludge from the waterway then it’s a win for the environment, why would Ecology say, “No”, to that?

Mr Walker should have been more engaged 8 years ago so that the marine trades who use the Whatcom Waterway could have informed the commission on creating a good plan. For example, the suggestions I offer were actually created by the owners and operators of Colony Wharf 12 years ago.  Since those folks have been there for many decades I consider them the local experts on how the area functions, yet the port staff, with no leadership from the commission, ignored the local experts and went it alone, designing a plan in conference rooms far away from the waterway.

Bottom line: the port commission did not give good direction and port staff dropped the ball. That failure is going to cost this community good will and renewed anger from the marine trades on the waterfront, but it won’t cost millions to fix it. However, if we don’t fix that plan it will cost many millions more than the fix ever did.  

 Walker: McAuley politicized the commission decision to replace executive director Charlie Sheldon.  He was an active player in prolonging a controversy that was notable only in the fact that public officials took action against a failed director.  After 25 years in management in the private sector, and 20 years as a port commissioner, in my judgment Sheldon was the worst port director in the state (75 ports). McAuley has no management experience.  After multiple proven charges, he was fired by a vote of 2-1.  The public uproar was coordinated with McAuley in order to get the five commission expansion on the ballot. He introduced the proposal to create two at-large positions that would have reduced geographical representation from the county, the goal of the Southside group sponsor.

McAuley:  True, sort of.  I don’t understand the ‘politicized’ terminology but if Mr. Walker means I reached out to the community and asked for their support then I guess I politicized his work on removing Mr. Sheldon. 

 In an interesting twist, which Mr. Walker fails to inform the reader, the day Mr. Sheldon was officially ousted the commission chambers were packed to standing room only, with more outside.  I’m told that was a first in the history of the port.   And, this wasn’t just a crowd of bleeding hearts; it was the widest representation of people from the left and right, from the environmental community and the chamber of commerce, and so on.

 The level of support for Mr. Sheldon was so widespread it was unbelievable. But don’t just take my word for it, there is a video of the proceedings to prove what I say is true.

 Also, those ‘public officials’, as Mr. Walker describes himself in the third person, failed to follow any public process. In fact, calls for Mr. Sheldon’s resignation were done individually by Mr. Walker and Mr. Jorgenson on a Saturday while Mr. Sheldon was at work tending to the aftermath of the fatal marina fire.

Walker: McAuley has publicly stated that when he and Renata Kowalczyk as running mates are elected, they will fire four current Port of Bellingham employees. This is outrageous behavior to threaten the jobs of public employees for political reasons.  If they are elected it can mean only a huge loss of credibility for the Port in attracting new employees and businesses, future legal bills paid with tax dollars to defend these actions, and loss of a region wide reputation and standing within the competitive port industry.

McAuley: (Although he did not address this charge in his written response to Walker, he flathly denied it when I called him for comment.

McAuley acknowledges saying he would try to make some staff changes in his second term, but he denied ever saying he would fire four people. As he tells it, commissioners have direct authority over just two positions, executive director and chief financial officer. The commissioners also hire the legal firm that represents the port.

McAuley said he does want to continue to take a critical look at staff performance, and advocate for changes in staff assignments based on who is qualified to do what.

"As the elected person, am I supposed to jusst sit idly by and rubber-stamp what the staff does?" he asked..

Walker: McAuley and Sheldon engineered the public subsidy of commercial fishermen who no longer pay even break even for their moorage, taking money from people with less to subsidize those with more, many who are wealthy.  Thousands of dollars have now been contributed to McAuley and Kowalczyk's campaigns by those who benefit from this taxpayer charity.

McAuley did not address this statement in his written remarks. For what it's worth, the record shows that Walker joined McAuley and Jorgensen in voting in favor of a lower moorage rate for commercial fishermen in 2011. When the break in moorage rates came up for a vote again, in February 2013, Walker cast the lone vote against extending that break to the end of 2013.

Fishermen sold port commissioners on the idea in 2011 by arguing that the lower rate would bring more vessels here and thereby raise more revenue, but so far that has not happened based on the most recent revenue statistics from the port. The lower rate for commercial fishermen creates a small revenue shortfall for the port's marinas at Blaine and Squalicum Harbor, and the port has been covering that shortfall with property tax revenue. For 2013, the tax subsidy is an estimated $60,000.

Commissioners are expected to reexamine the moorage rate issue in 2014.

Both McAuley and Kowalczyk have received $4,000 campaign contributions from the Whatcom Commercial Fishermans Association.

 

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