Former Marina Facilities Manager Joe Wheeler speaks at the port commission’s special meeting on Nov. 21.

Port commission meeting discusses eliminated position | Update

On Monday, Nov. 21, about 30 people, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, crammed into the Port of Friday Harbor’s meeting room to discuss the elimination of a position. The controversy surrounds Joe Wheeler, who was the marina facilities manager for two years.

The port eliminated Wheeler’s position on Nov. 1 due to budget cuts. At the meeting, about eight people, including port tenants, local business owners and former port staff and contractors said the port commissioners and director were not truthful about the reason for dismissal.

Dick Grout was the only person to speak in agreeance with the port’s decision, stating that after he spoke with port staff he felt budget cuts were necessary.

Lauren Cohen of San Juan Canvas asked for the port commissioner meeting minutes that explained the need for the position’s elimination. Commissioner Greg Hertel said he was notified of the decision a few days before Wheeler’s termination by Port Director Ted Fitzgerald. He added that the director was hired to oversee port staff and was responsible for hiring and firing.

Commissioner Barbara Marrett said she would share the director’s position description, including the goals to eliminate inefficiencies, with the public.

“We don’t have a budget for big projects,” said Marrett.

The marina facilities manager oversaw marina maintenance and special projects, including the $7 million Spring Street Landing building, which finished construction in October. The position has existed for about 30 years.

“We’ve always had a facilities manager without projects,” said Jeremy Talbott, former harbormaster at the Port of Friday Harbor and current acting ports and harbors director for Valdez, Alaska. Talbot added that ports, the size of Friday Harbor, always have facilities managers.

Some facilities manager duties will be performed by Fitzgerald. The position may be filled again, but not anytime soon, said commissioners. Fitzgerald said no other positions are slated to be eliminated and some work between the airport and marina will be shared to increase efficiency.

“I’ll never believe my termination was due to budget cuts,” Wheeler said at the meeting. “It was for personal reasons.”

After the meeting, Wheeler stated that Fitzgerald banned him from the construction site of the Spring Street Landing building, in front of Wheeler’s staff. Wheeler assumes he was banned because he tried to hold the contractor, Wellman & Zuck Construction, accountable for delays and Fitzgerald had formed a friendship with the contractor’s foreman.

Fitzgerald said he met the contractor, for the first time, when he started in July. Construction for the building had already been delayed.

“One reason I was hired was because of this project, which, under the current management, was far behind schedule,” said Fitzgerald. “I was hired to streamline completion of the building, which I did to the best of my ability.”

Wheeler started as a maintenance mechanic in 2011 and worked up to facilities manager by 2014. Three days before dismissal, Wheeler said he received an award by the port commission on his work with the Spring Street Landing building.

Fitzgerald was hired by the port commission to replace Marilyn O’Conner, who retired last summer as port director after 31 years.

Wheeler was let go in Fitzgerald’s office, asked to return his key and escorted to clean out his locker by the director. Wheeler said, as a manager, he would have been made aware of budget cuts, prior to dismissal, which he was not.

At the beginning of the meeting, the port’s lawyer, Frank Chmelik, explained, over speaker phone, the severance package Wheeler agreed to with his attorney and the port motioned to accept it. Wheeler said he originally hired a lawyer to fight for wrongful termination, but couldn’t afford the court fees.

Speakers were asked to be civil by commissioners at the meeting, before the floor was opened. Several called for Fitzgerald’s termination and said Wheeler should be the port director or a port commissioner.

A port commission meeting was held on Nov. 9 to discuss the 2017 budget and many of the same people spoke in Wheeler’s defense.

“Based on budget requirements, revenue stream and outlook over the next few years, the position of marina facilities manager was eliminated,” said Fitzgerald.

Hertel said one example of why the port’s revenue stream has decreased in the last decade is due to the decreased number of boaters seeking moorage for one or two nights. The port has increased the transient boaters fee, but increasing it further is not an option.

“There’s a point where this strategy [of increasing the fee] doesn’t work anymore and we don’t want to find it,” said Fitzgerald.

Wheeler earned $72,634, annually, which was paid through port operations revenue, according to Fitzgerald.

“We’ve all had an emotional few weeks,” said Marrett at the meeting’s close. “It’s hard for a position to be let go in a small town. We’ve had a rough patch, but don’t judge the port or the new director by this.”

At the meeting, Grace Lembo asked if morale had ever been this low at the port. Hertel, who was first elected as port commissioner in 1991, replied no.

The next port commissioners meeting is at 4 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 271 Front Street in Friday Harbor.