Commissioner regretful, but Wheeler not reinstated

More than a month into a heated debate about the elimination of a port position, a port commissioner has stated regret over the situation.

“In hindsight, things should have been done differently,” said Greg Hertel at the Dec. 14 port meeting. “I should have given it a closer look, that’s my fault.”

Hertel was referencing a phone conversation with Executive Director Ted Fitzgerald to eliminate the marina facilities manager position, last held by Joe Wheeler.

Members of the meeting questioned why the conversation wasn’t in a recorded, public session. Hertel told The Journal, afterward, that major changes like position eliminations should be included in public meetings from now on, although no official motion by the commission was made.

Discussions on specific employees are prohibited by state law, said Hertel. Commission President Barbara Marrett reiterated this at the meeting.

“I know it’s frustrating, but some matters are confidential and we don’t talk about them,” said Marrett.

Commissioner Mike Ahrenius said further executive sessions, when private matters are discussed and not recorded, could include port staff for more accountability.

In Hertel’s 25 years on the port’s commission, he admitted he has relied on senior port staff for direction.

“The three of us are stepping into a little bit of new water,” said Hertel. “Ted needed more guidance from us.”

Several members of the public, including two at the Dec. 14 meeting, have asked for Wheeler to be reinstated. Hertel explained, at the meeting, that staff restructuring would have happened eventually, due to current port finances caused by the Spring Street Landing project delays. This includes outstanding invoices from contractors for jobs done outside the time period of the initial contract.

Marilyn O’Connor, Fitzgerald’s predecessor from just five months prior, told the room she knew money to fund the Spring Street Landing project would have to come out of reserves before she left. In case of an emergency, like if a position had to be eliminated to save money, she wrote into the budget an optional $100,000 from operational revenue to pay towards the principal of a 20-year bond that funded part of the Spring Street Landing project.

Instead, said O’Connor, they eliminated the “person appointed to save money and keep construction going.” After the port’s last capital project prior to Spring Street Landing (the $4 million reconstruction of the original part of the marina), Connor appointed Wheeler to do projects, only in-house, to save money.

Marrett said they knew of the extra $100,000 and would now have to use it for the outstanding invoices and the revenue lost at the Spring Street Landing building. Marrett reminded the room of the $2.5 million revenue bond the port took out on the Spring Street Landing building. It can only be paid back by revenue from leases in the building and one lower-level suite has never generated lease payments. Fitzgerald is in negotiations with a business and hopes to finalize the lease by next week, said Hertel to The Journal.

Wheeler told The Journal he fears the port will be overcharged for the outstanding invoices now that the project’s two primary leaders are gone — him and O’Connor. At the meeting, Fitzgerald explained he is currently matching invoices to jobs completed by the contractor, who Wheeler has said is Fitzgerald’s friend. Fitzgerald has said that he met the contractor when he started at the port in June.

The Spring Street Landing project should have been finished by then, according to port meeting minutes, but the ribbon cutting wasn’t until October and Downrigger’s, located on the second level, officially opened in November. Reasons for delays included the additional contaminated soil found during construction that had to be collected and transported off the island and the addition of the Downrigger’s mezzanine after construction was planned.

It was Fitzgerald’s fourth month at the port when he eliminated Wheeler’s position. In the port commissioners’ op-ed to The Journal, published on Dec. 12, they said the marina facilities manager’s duties on special projects, like the Spring Street Landing building, were the same as those Fitzgerald had done at his previous job. The change, they said, allowed the Spring Street Landing project to move quickly.

Hertel told The Journal, after the meeting, that Fitzgerald is looking to combine work performed at the port and the Friday Harbor Airport, which it operates. In the past, he added, one maintenance crew would be inundated with work, while the other had little. Inefficiencies like these are what commissioners asked Fitzgerald to fix when he was hired at the port.

Wheeler previously told The Journal that after he was terminated, Fitzgerald asked for his key and escorted him to clean out his locker. Wheeler said he was never told about budget cuts or the need to eliminate a position until the day he was let go, even though he was a manager. He had worked for the port for five years and his position existed at the port for about 30 years.