Pressure increases on Tacoma port director
Timothy Farrell's status as executive director of the Port of Tacoma is up in the air as port commissioners review his performance after a bumpy few years.
The board met in a closed session with Farrell a week ago and a second meeting is scheduled for Monday.
'I have requested a conversation with the commission about a transition in leadership at the Port,' Farrell said in an e-mail to employees last week that the port shared with AmericanShipper.com. The move appears intended to get in front of calls for his removal.
Local paper The News Tribune (TNT) has led the reporting since early this month on the possible departure of Farrell, who joined the port as deputy executive director in 2000 and took over in 2004.
The news follows the decision by NYK Line not to pursue a 168-acre, dedicated container terminal project along the Blair Waterway, which was to be built by the port to lure NYK from the neighboring port of Seattle. The Japanese carrier and the port cited the downturn in trade as the reason not to develop extra capacity. NYK instead agreed to bring its vessels to the existing APM Terminal in Tacoma, which this year lost its primary customer, Maersk Line, to Seattle.
Farrell's legacy also includes a failed attempt to build a large inland rail port south of town and ruffled feelings over the way 47 staff members were let go this summer in a cost-cutting move.
'We've had some reverses here and we're quizzing Tim about them, looking at all the alternatives for him and the port,' said R. Ted Bottiger, the board's vice president.
Although economic conditions ultimately doomed the NYK project, questions are being raised in some quarters about its conception and oversight as estimated costs ballooned from $800 million to $1.2 billion, of which $300 million was to be for constructing the terminal itself.
Port Commissioner Richard Marzano, a longshoreman who is up for re-election this year, said he didn't think the NYK deal should be a reflection on Farrell. But, he explained, one of the reasons the port director received a critical performance review last year was that incorrect assumptions were made about the amount of environmental remediation and utility requirements required to prepare the industrial land for redevelopment.
'When they started penciling out the costs, they were far greater than' assumed, he said when reached by cell phone. Spreading the blame, he said the board and staff all realize that future decisions need to be made on the basis of sound analysis and not assumptions.
Bottiger said it would be 'an oversimplification' to claim the NYK deal was only a casualty of the economy, but quickly added that 'Tim is an extremely capable guy that I don't think anybody wants to lose.'
An Oct. 5 TNT editorial took Farrell to task for describing the NYK outcome in rosy terms as a positive for all sides: 'If this turn of events is supposed to feel good, it's the kind of good you feel after the pistol-whipping stops, the robbers are gone, and you realize you are still alive — however poorer ' So, O.K., let's lay the blame on the recession. But let's not pretend the loss of this immense project is good news.'
Anonymous readers noted in the paper's comments section that the port had cleared out many operating business, either through property acquisitions or eminent domain, to make way for the new terminal.
'The only good news is that the project was so out of control that it might have bankrupted the port had it been built. Admitting that however, would require the port to come clean with its owners, the taxpayers of Pierce County,' columnist Peter Callaghan wrote. He criticized the port commission for conducting a key personnel decision behind closed doors, violating the spirit of state open meeting laws under which offline discussions in such circumstances are only justified to protect privacy.
In June 2008, the port authority pulled the plug on a $23 million real estate investment to build a 745-acre inland port in nearby Maytown in the face of vocal opposition from an environmental group and local residents concerned about truck traffic and other issues. Port officials viewed an intermodal facility in rural Maytown, located about 30 miles southwest of Tacoma, as a way to quickly move cargo off the docks so it could be better sorted for final destinations and develop a logistics park. Port claims that the park would create almost 2,000 jobs made little headway with opponents. The Port of Tacoma has since put the parcel up for sale.
Marzano said the concept of a rail-served logistics park made sense, but that senior staff and the board failed to engage the community early on to make sure their concerns were addressed. He said residents might react differently now in the midst of a recession.
The outcome also might have been different if Tacoma had taken the lead on the project instead of its partner, the Port of Olympia, according to a source familiar with the situation. Tacoma's strong environmental expertise would have gone a long way to cleaning up waste from the former ammunition plant at the site, but Olympia was allowed to take responsibility for shepherding the process because the site was located in its jurisdiction of Thurston County, the source said.
Bottiger said the port is going to take a big financial hit on the Maytown property if it finds a buyer.
'If we're going to lose a lot of money I'm not going to vote to sell it,' Marzano said. The port has received two offers, he said.
Some staff members who were laid off last summer sent a 'no-confidence' letter to the board about Farrell, which Marzano characterized as a typical reaction for disgruntled workers.
Among the complaints was that Farrell wanted terminated workers who received severance packages to sign one-year non-compete agreements. Marzano said the board and the port director amended the terms to a six-month period and that only senior staff were restricted from working for other port districts. The source said non-compete provisions are common for termination deals, but that the port's list of restricted organizations was unusually long and included the Washington Department of Transportation. ' Eric Kulisch