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Port commission shares blame for fumbles

Post by Kim Bradford on Feb. 11, 2009 at 8:29 pm with No Comments »
February 11, 2009 8:29 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

The Port of Tacoma’s recent failures reflect badly on both the executive director and commissioners elected to provide oversight.

Tim Farrell may have mismanaged a couple of key Port of Tacoma projects, but he didn’t act alone.

Farrell, the port’s executive director, came under unusual fire from the port commissioners during his most recent performance review. They criticized him for ballooning cost estimates on the port’s "most important undertaking": construction of a Blair Waterway shipping terminal to serve the NYK Line.

Its projected cost rose a whopping 50 percent, from $800 million to $1.2 billion – largely because port officials didn’t figure correctly the expense of reconfiguring utilities and cleaning up past contamination.

That cost increase, past commission president Dick Marzano wrote, "has to be defined either as misinformation, lack of information from staff of lack of adequate oversight by you . . . You failed to meet expectations and as we continue to alter the course to the betterment of the port, there will have to be accountability."

Those are pretty strong words coming from commissioners who in past years have heaped praise and $20,000 raises on Farrell.

They also knocked Farrell for poor judgment on the Maytown project, which was intended to be a joint venture with the Port of Olympia to develop a logistics center where Tacoma could stage cargo headed to and from its docks on the Tideflats.

The port bought 745 acres in Thurston County without first considering how it might be received by the neighbors. As it turned out, the locals never warmed to the Port of Tacoma or its plans, and the land is now up for sale.

Both Maytown and the NYK deals were hobbled by the same failure to challenge assumptions and lock down significant details. The port, which is as close to a business enterprise as a public entity gets, needs to be nimble. But even the most aggressive businesses can’t dispense with due diligence.

For the missteps, Farrell rightfully shoulders much of the blame. He’s the professional, the person paid big bucks to know the right questions to ask and to advise the commissioners on how to proceed.

But Farrell also is, with all due respect, a hired hand. Voters elect the commissioners to ensure their interests at the port are protected. That commissioners did not understand the risks or unknowns involved in Maytown and NYK deals reflects poorly on their own critical analysis of the proposals presented to them by staff.

The commission appears to be taking steps to beef up its oversight. It is working on a written list of goals for Farrell, a step it skipped in past years.

Specific, measurable targets are essential to ensure that everyone – the executive director, the board and the taxpayers – know what’s expected and how to judge performance. Perhaps while the commissioners are at it, they should set some for themselves.

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