Q & A session with Customs and Border Protection

Left to right: Arthur Beard, CBP construction mgr; Greg Alvarez, CBP Area Port Director; Rick Hughes, discussion moderator; Jim Coffelt, General Services Administration; Tom Stromberg, CBP Friday Harbor commander.  - Journal photo / Steve Wehrly
Left to right: Arthur Beard, CBP construction mgr; Greg Alvarez, CBP Area Port Director; Rick Hughes, discussion moderator; Jim Coffelt, General Services Administration; Tom Stromberg, CBP Friday Harbor commander.
— image credit: Journal photo / Steve Wehrly

Customs and Border Protection came to the big meeting room at the fire station on Monday, Nov. 23, to listen to citizen complaints about the location of the new CBP office at the corner of First and Spring Streets. They listened, and answered questions, for more than two hours.

Six uniformed Customs and Border Protection agents, one CBP construction project manager and one General Services Administration leasing supervisor were all surprised that local residents might not like siting the local customs and border patrol office at First and Spring streets in downtown Friday Harbor.

They found out fast. About fifty people told them in about fifty different ways that they didn't like the idea - Lovel Pratt, Jim Stoag, Juniper Maas Mercer and Dan Paulson among them.

Although called "a mob" by one defender of the lease, none of the group was confrontational. Many speakers praised the local CBP staff and recognized their importance to the tourist-based economy and the damage that the location or that improper actions by CBP officers might cause to that economy. Several speakers asked questions or raised subjects, such as body cavity searches and holding cells, that the panel did not have answers for.

Scott Davis suggested that the government could still lease the space, but it should be filled with National Park Service personnel and other tourist-friendly services. After the meeting, CBP Area Port Director Greg Alvarez said that he intended to make the lobby "visitor friendly," possibly with a display rack with maps and guides and a front-desk person who would answer visitors' questions.

Dennis Hazelton and Michelle Loftus defended the lease and the right of the owner to lease to anybody he chose. Loftus apologized for online comments posted by opponents on various websites.

None of the eight, including Jim Coffelt, senior GSA contracting officer, knew many details about the decision to lease the First and Spring space, nor about the Beaverton Valley Road space that was offered to CBP, nor about the fact that seven years ago the Port offered to build a building at the port for use by the CBP local officers.

Coffelt answered several questions by saying he did not have that information with him, and that he wasn't the GSA person who worked on the lease. He said afterward that the woman who worked on the lease for GSA was "unavailable" for the meeting.

The answer was "no" when a Journal reporter asked whether any of the eight had thought about or discussed among themselves that local citizens might react negatively to the decision to put the office at the busiest location in town. According to Coffelt, there is no regulatory requirement that GSA inform local citizens or hold public meetings to discuss locations leased by the federal government.

Several participants asked "why that location?". No answer was forthcoming from the panel, although Greg Alvarez, the senior CBP officer, described in detail the reasons a new office was needed and some of the requirements that needed to be met.

Coffelt said GSA had been looking "for ten years" for space in Friday Harbor for CBP, but he apparently didn't know any details about the proposal by the Port of Friday harbor to accommodate the CBP at the port - or that the port had spent more than $100,000 on the proposal. Coffelt said that GSA "followed our procedures" and awarded the lease to the "least cost" location that met GSA requirements. His would not give the monthly lease amount and did not say that the First and Spring location was the "least cost" to the government.

Coffelt did suggest that perhaps an unsuccessful bidder for the lease did not answer all the questions required by the GSA, but Coffelt said he was not the GSA agent on the project and did not know whether that was the case. He also implied that residents should have known that GSA was looking to lease office space on San Juan Island, if not at that particular location. One listeners remarked, "that was a 'this is your own fault' answer."

David McCauley, owner of the business park on Beaverton Valley Road, disputed the suggestion that he had not answered GSA questions. McCauley said he had, at some expense, hired a person who specialized in government leases who filled out the extensive paperwork for the GSA and had "answered every question" posed by the GSA. McCauley said his agent, who had worked on many similar proposals, was "flabbergasted" when the lease was awarded to the owner of the downtown location.

McCauley also believed that his bid was for the ten year lease was lower than the competition, but he admitted he couldn't prove it.

Asked whether there was a process for reversing the decision, Coffelt said, "Anything is possible." Numerous people left the meeting saying they would try.


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