In an effort to make its twice-monthly meetings more accessible to the working public, the Port of Bellingham commission will shift some of its business to the evenings.
Each of his six years in office, Commissioner Mike McAuley has proposed the three-member board change its meetings from 3 p.m. to evenings on the first and third Tuesday of the month. Each time the idea has been shot down.
But with the vote of newcomer Bobby Briscoe, who took the commission’s oath of office Tuesday, Jan. 5, McAuley’s seventh bid to move at least part of the commission’s business to around 5:30 p.m. was approved Tuesday. Commissioner Dan Robbins was opposed.
“This is and has been consistently over my six years here the one issue that comes up more than any other,” McAuley said. “I think this is a good compromise. It allows people who would like to come to talk to us without having to take time off work.”
The January and February meetings will remain at the usual 3 p.m. time, giving port staff about two months to work out exactly how to shift part of the business to the evenings by the March 1 meeting.
Port staff objected to moving the meeting time in the past because a lot of the commission’s dealings are with business professionals who often prefer to meet during business hours. The port runs the Blaine and Bellingham harbors and the Bellingham airport and is overseeing redevelopment of the city's industrial waterfront.
Most large ports conduct their meetings during daytime hours for business purposes.
Commissioner Dan Robbins
Before the decision was made Tuesday, a few port tenants, including Doug Thomas, president of Bellingham Cold Storage, said they would prefer keeping the meetings in the afternoon.
“Daytime meetings are better for us,” Thomas said during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. “If we need to bring professional service assistants with us, that’s easier to do during the daytime.”
Robbins said he had given the topic some thought and proposed keeping the regular meetings at 3 p.m., but to move any public hearings to the evenings, starting around 7 p.m. or after the dinner hour. Briscoe and McAuley rejected that proposal.
“Most large ports conduct their meetings during daytime hours for business purposes,” Robbins said, pointing out that by most measures, Bellingham is the fourth-largest port in the state. “The reason is because they’re what I call ‘green and growing’ ports, creating jobs, and they want to cater to the business community and not alienate them. You really want to cater to that business community.”
Robbins argued that holding meetings at night would tend to bring out activists who have concerns but don’t have direct business with the port.
He also stated that he spends more time with the written comments he receives than with the three minutes given to people who comment during the meetings. He pointed out the port spends money to video record the meetings to “be more transparent with the folks who want to watch it.”
Briscoe said his main objective was not to displace people like Thomas but to make sure if big issues on the table that residents of Whatcom County have the opportunity to get there.
McAuley said his proposal will attempt to meet the needs of the staff and business professionals, as well as the public, by splitting port business into afternoon and evening sessions.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, McAuley said he thought the afternoon meetings, which would still be open public meetings, could be used to hear the commission’s consent agenda, which is often filled with expenses the commission needs to approve.
“Ninety percent of the things we do are just ‘OK’ expenditures for things we already approved in last year’s budget,” McAuley said. “I’m not sure the public wants to sit through a meeting and listen to that.”
McAuley said he doesn’t think an overwhelming number of people will find new interest in the commission once the meetings are moved to the evenings, as a lot of the work the commission oversees can be “pretty mundane.”
The commission rarely receives public input during its 3 p.m. meetings, and the number of people watching the live-stream of the meetings on YouTube typically hovers in the single digits.
“But I think it’s important if you want to come, that it’s convenient,” McAuley said.
As McAuley sees it, some staff presentations and discussions on different port issues likely would take place during the evening meetings, though long reports such as the yearly audit could take place in the afternoons.
“By shifting the schedule for the commission, it certainly makes our day a little bit longer, but if you’re doing this work already, like I do, I take the day off anyway. An hour longer or later, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “Staff are salaried, and they can just shift their work hours twice a month and that can be accommodated as well.”
The final schedule change will be announced before March.