The board of commissioners of the Port of Port Angeles held its regular meeting Monday, June 24, but the result was anything but ordinary.
Before a packed house in the Port’s board room, Jeff Robb, the executive director of the Port, resigned his position effective immediately. Robb cited health concerns for his decision.
He was then hired to fill a newly created position as director of environmental affairs for the Port. In that position he’ll continue to receive the $138,000 annual salary he was paid as executive director. The new contract is set to expire July 31, 2014, which will bring Robb to 30 years of government service, allowing for early retirement.
Under his new contract, Robb is not required to work at the Port offices.
The new contract was approved by commissioners Paul McHugh and John Calhoun over the objections of board president Jim Hallett.
The spectators anticipated a lively meeting and got one.
While McHugh and Calhoun simply expressed their support for the plan, Hallett provided a lengthy critique, saying as a fiduciary he had to object. “I have the responsibility to seek what’s in the best interest of the public,” he said.
He noted that under his former contract Robb was responsible for all of the operations of the Port, including the ongoing environmental projects. “Why would we pay the same for less work?” he asked.
He also noted that the job had not been posted and called into question Robb’s qualifications for the position. “We should be seeking someone highly qualified — the best candidate,” he said.
He noted that Robb has an Associate of Arts degree and no academic background in environmental science.
A number of those in the audience took advantage of Hallett’s invitation to speak on the matter.
Doug Sandau, who managed the Port’s William R. Fairchild International Airport until his May retirement, said Robb was “in over his head” with the environmental duties of the job.
He told the board their “integrity” is key: “Once it’s lost it can never be regained.”
Cory Armstrong, a partner in Armstrong Marine, asked about the timing of the new contract, saying, “Why does it have to be today?”
Dick Foster, a former commissioner, told the commissioners the new contract “sounds like a sweetheart, good ole boy deal.” He also said it was “irresponsible.”
Dan Morrison, owner of Morrison Excavation, took the opportunity to take Hallett to task, saying,”He’s not a straight-up guy. I don’t believe anything Mr. Hallett said.”
Bill James, a former finance director of the Port, praised the new contract. He first pointed out that with benefits, the new contract will probably cost the Port closer to $200,000 a year and that its term was likely established to ensure Robb could enjoy an early retirement.
He said the decision was based on “loyalty.”
“I think this is kind of admirable,” he said.
Former Port executive director Chris Anderson said the controversy is the fault of the commissioners, who recently gave Robb a three-year contract. Barring “cause,” they could not fire him, she said.
She called it a “severance package,” and urged the commissioners to “be honest with the public.”
McHugh, who represents the eastern part of Clallam County on the board, including Sequim, said that Robb’s existing contract did play a role in deciding his vote.
But he also said Robb has found himself between a rock and a hard place.
He said Robb’s authority to do his job had been undermined “by a commissioner” — an obvious reference to Hallett — who involved himself in the “operational side” of the Port’s activities “in a way that violates the operations agreement with the executive director.”
As a result, McHugh said, “It became obvious to me and to John Calhoun that it would be difficult if not impossible for an executive director to remain in the role.”
“And that is coupled with the fact that he is dealing with some health issues.”
McHugh concluded, “It became obvious that changes needed to be made.”
McHugh said it was also important for Robb to continue to oversee the many environmental projects the Port is involved in, including those at the former K-Ply site, the Marine Trades Area and the harbor-wide clean up.
“He has relationships and knowledge that cannot be replaced. They are critical,” he said.
McHugh added that bringing on a new person to perform the same functions would have cost more. “Only Jeff has the institutional knowledge and the special knowledge of Port issues.”
“I’m glad we can keep him on to deal with those issues.”
McHugh said the fault doesn’t just lie with his fellow commissioner. “I think we have some issues with our senior staff as well.”
He took particular aim at Colleen McAleer, the Port’s director of business development and his opponent in this fall’s election for the seat he now holds.
He said McAleer has asked the commissioners to provide the staff with a “direct line of communication to the commission.”
“Colleen is of the opinion that if she were able to avoid the chain of command, that she would be able to work more effectively with the Port in her efforts,” he said.
“Others have to take some responsibility for the position we’re in,” McHugh said, adding, “There are other issues that haven’t played themselves out.”
McHugh concluded, “When the day is done, it will be seen as a positive move, especially if we can do a better job of understanding our roles and how we each do our jobs.”
“When one or more of us step over those lines it’s a recipe for disaster. And that’s where we find ourselves.”
He said he’s also hopeful the executive search firm the board soon will hire will find an interim director who can help clean up the confusion.
McHugh said, “We could hire anybody to sign checks and sit in the big chair, but I’m hoping that person won’t be interested in the job and that person will help us understand how we got to this point and fix it so we can hit the ground running.”
McHugh said recent events have been painful to everyone. “There’s a lot of hurt out there.”
He called Monday’s meeting “unfortunate,” saying the issues raised by Hallett had been discussed by the commissioners in private, which he said is appropriate for personnel matters.
He also said the large turnout was “was obviously orchestrated by someone.”
“Citizens have a right to do that,” he said, adding, “I’ve never seen a public employee subjected to that kind of public ridicule. I have to hold Commissioner Hallett responsible.”