Rift emerges between Bellingham port director and commissioner

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham Commissioner Scott Walker says the rift that has emerged between him and Executive Director Charlie Sheldon won't disrupt ongoing projects at the port.

At a port commission meeting Tuesday, Oct. 18 - exactly one year after Sheldon assumed the $135,000-a-year job - Walker made a motion to request Sheldon's resignation. Commissioners Mike McAuley and Jim Jorgensen voted no.

On Friday, Oct. 21, Walker said he has since met with Sheldon to try to get past their differences.

"We've promised to try to do better with each other," Walker said. "We have to do that."

But Walker, a 20-year veteran of the port commission, also made it clear that his discontent with Sheldon has not evaporated.

Walker said his feelings about Sheldon came to a head after Sheldon's recent announcement of new titles and responsibilities for four port managers: Lydia Bennett, Rob Fix, Carolyn Casey and Elizabeth Monahan.

Walker said that when he interviewed Sheldon before his hiring, the two men agreed that the port's management staff had been beefed up in anticipation of a flurry of waterfront redevelopment activity that has not materialized. Walker said he expected Sheldon to take steps to trim that staff. Walker saw Sheldon's staff reorganization as a step in the wrong direction, and he told Sheldon he wanted more discussion of the move among port commissioners.

Walker said Sheldon replied that the other two commissioners favored the reorganization.

"When he told me that he had the 2-1 vote, that was it," Walker said. "I felt like the only thing I had left was making it a public issue."

But the staff reorganization was only the last in a series of behind-the-scenes clashes between Walker and Sheldon.

During a discussion of labor contracts over a meal at a local restaurant, Walker said Sheldon became angry and yelled at him.

On another occasion, Walker said he called a staffer in the port accounting office to ask a technical question about financial estimates developed during discussion of the port's recent change to a moorage rate system that offers a break to commercial fishermen.

Walker said the staffer told him that all commissioner inquiries had to be routed through Sheldon.

"I called Charlie and told him, 'This isn't how this has been done,'" Walker said. "This is a small port."

Walker said he was also upset to learn that Sheldon had sent a letter to Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, challenging Pike's public statements about the port's role in the slow pace of waterfront cleanup and development planning.

"That was never cleared with us," Walker said.

In still another instance, Walker said he asked Sheldon to report back to commissioners about a complaint from the manager of the port-owned Amtrak station in Fairhaven, asking the port to remove stored items that were taking up too much space in the station. Walker contended that Sheldon was slow to respond.

Port commissioners Jorgensen and McAuley downplayed the significance of the rift between the two men, and they also gave Sheldon strong endorsements.

"I believe that Charlie is exactly the man we were looking for," McAuley said. "He's doing everything we asked him to do. ... I think the organization is going to be fine."

Jorgensen agreed.

"I think you'll find that the staff and the commission, aside from Scott of course, really support Charlie," Jorgensen said. "I think they can get past it. ... I think he (Walker) is willing to cooperate and keep the port going on the track it's been going. ... I feel sure it's going to be worked out."

Walker said Jorgensen, a retired Blaine teacher, has the skills to help him and Sheldon resolve their differences.

"He's probably broken up more schoolyard fights than anybody I know," Walker said.

Sheldon was not available for comment Friday.