Port commissioners sound off at QA Chamber luncheon

New Port of Seattle Commission president John Creighton repeated the phase, "Cleanest, greenest and most energy-efficient port in the nation" as a mantra and a goal when he was the featured speaker at a Feb. 21 luncheon of the Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce.

But Creighton, a Queen Anne resident, also used his speech to criticize press coverage of the port since the state issued a scathing report that identified $97 million in allegedly wasted port funds connected to work on the third runway at SeaTac International Airport.

"Port staff agreed with the majority of the audit's recommendations, and you don't see that in the press," he said. The report is a touchy subject these days for port commissioners, who weren't informed as they should have been about expenditures at the airport, according to Brian Sontag's audit.

Based on ongoing press coverage, many might think the news is all bad at the port, Creighton told chamber members. "That's not the case," he said.

Port commissioners sound off at QA Chamber luncheon Creighton cited a record 31.1 million passengers passing through SeaTac as one example, along with a slew of new non-stop international flights that have been launched in the last year.

He also pointed to the completion of the third runway after many years of work as a major accomplishment, and Creighton noted that each of the 211 cruise ships scheduled to dock in Seattle this year will bring in around $1.3 million to the local economy.

The rehabilitation of Fishermen's Terminal has also been a success, he said of another example of progress.

Still, the picture at the port is not completely rosy. The number of containers shipped through the Seattle port has leveled off in the last couple of years, and port plans to redevelop its North Bay area in Interbay appear to have stalled, he conceded.

The local port is also facing stiff competition from other West Coast ports, as well as from Mexico and Canadian ports, Creighton allowed. He also pointed to another planned development that could spell serious trouble for the Seattle port: the widening of the Panama Canal so it can handle container ships.

Once that's done, Creighton said, container ships will be able to bypass West Coast ports and sail directly to the East Coast, where many of the imports are eventually shipped. Sontag's audit found no fraud at the port, Creighton emphasized, but he conceded there's room for improvement.

"Let there be no mistake, this commission is committed to change," the commission president said.

don't think they're going to do that." That change will have to include the bureaucratic culture at the port, Creighton agreed in response to a question from this reporter. "I think that's very important," he said.

There is a precedent for that, Creighton said in reference to cleaning up the Port of Seattle Police, many of whom allegedly got pretty racy in their e-mails to each other. "We had policies and procedures in place that weren't enforced," he said.

There were also existing policies and procedures that weren't followed for the third runway project, according to the audit. Speaking at the luncheon, new port commissioner Gael Tarleton said that the commission needs to reclaim its right to decide how money is spent at the port.

But she also said that changes in leadership are needed to retool the bureaucratic culture at the port. In the meantime, a moratorium on awarding new contracts was instituted on Jan. 15 until changes in policies can be made, Tarleton said. "It is not business as usual," she stressed.

"It's not easy to change," Tarleton went on to say, "but if you can change, it will be a much stronger port in the future."

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