Joe Wheeler gives examples of his good work at the Nov. 30 Port of Friday Harbor meeting. Wheeler’s position was eliminated due to budget cuts on Nov. 1.

Port plans to discuss eliminated position at next meeting

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction of Barbara Conrad’s comments at the Nov. 30 meeting.)

The Port of Friday Harbor’s regular meeting on Nov. 30 included about 40 guests, but after the public comment segment, it ended with an audience of six.

Two people requested the port’s recent elimination of a position to be added as an agenda item for the next port meeting on Dec. 14 and commissioners granted it.

Joe Wheeler’s position of marina facilities manager was eliminated due to budget cuts on Nov. 1 by the Port Director Ted Fitzgerald. This was the third meeting where the public commented on the elimination.

Four people spoke in favor of the port’s termination decision and five spoke against it, including Wheeler. Applauds were given after several Wheeler supporters made comments.

Wheeler gave four examples of how he saved the port more than $100,000 by performing jobs the port normally would contract out and will have to, now that he was terminated.

Bob Freehoff, who worked at the port for 28 years and hired Wheeler, said the decision to eliminate the position was made behind closed doors. For the second time at a port meeting, Lauren Cohen of San Juan Canvas asked Wheeler to be reinstated.

“This is a plea for sanity, this is a plea for common sense,” said Cohen.

Wheeler’s mother-in-law asked commissioners if they had talked to Wheeler to hear his side. Commissioners can only discuss issues on the meeting’s agenda.

Barbara Conrad spoke in support of the decision to eliminate the maintenance position, stating that port director is not asked to “maintain status quo.”

As a pastor’s wife, she added that she is familiar with “how difficult it can be to move into a new community and lead an organization that’s been served for many years by the same pastor and staff.”

“Change is difficult, but it’s also necessary if an organization is to stay relevant and thrive…be that a church or a port,” she said.

Yvonne Swanberg, owner of San Juan Vineyards, said Fitzgerald’s wife works for her and that they moved to the island to spend the rest of their lives here.

“Keep an open mind and let the port move forward,” said Swanberg.

Wheeler worked at the port for five years and Fitzgerald started in July.

After public comment, the director and commissioners discussed outstanding fees for the Spring Street Landing project. The building’s architects requested an additional $76,579 for services, like landscaping, which were not included in the original contract. The building’s contractor requested $253,093 for 231 days of delayed work caused by adding additional jobs, like rerouting electric. Fitzgerald said the money would have to be taken from reserves and staff is reviewing the contract and negotiations.

The next regular meeting should include a discussion by the director and commissioners on the elimination of the facilities manager. It’s at 4 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 271 Front Street in Friday Harbor.