Former port director resigns | Guest column

By Ted Fitzgerald

Former executive director of the Port of Friday Harbor

(Editor’s note: Joe Wheeler told The Journal he has never threatened anyone.)

On Nov. 1, 2016 in my capacity as director of the Port of Friday Harbor I eliminated the position of marina facilities manager, held by Joe Wheeler. The position was eliminated because it wasn’t needed anymore. I stand by it.

However, certain members of the public including Wheeler’s family members and members of the family of the previous port director have made allegations intended to obscure the facts regarding the elimination of the manager position, specifically going back to a Sept. 13 decision I made to remove Wheeler from his role as port liaison with the contractor for the Spring Street Landing project. Wheeler and I were the only two individuals with knowledge of the events leading up to his removal, so I was surprised to hear it mentioned; clearly Wheeler communicated his unhappiness with that decision to others. I have been inaccurately accused of removing Wheeler from the project because of favoritism toward an employee of the Project Contractor Wellman and Zuck. Attempting to re-cast reality in that light is wrong.

On Sept. 12, Wheeler came into my office after an altercation with a third party at the SSL project site and told me he was going to endanger the welfare of that person.

I was not aware of the nature and extent of Wheeler’s relationship with this third party. I was not aware of what, if any, individual actions motivated the animus that Wheeler had toward this third party and communicated verbally to me through a threat, but it is obviously not acceptable to have an employee make a threat toward a third party. After that threat was communicated to me, I had no choice but to remove Wheeler. If Wheeler had made good or (more likely) attempted to make good on his threat after communicating it to his supervisor (me) liability could have attached to the port.

I had experienced first-hand examples of Wheeler’s volatile nature with regard to his relationship with this particular individual.

I intended to handle administratively the problems relating to Wheeler’s employment stemming from his anger toward others, specifically that situation referred to above. However, upon assumption of his duties at Spring Street I was able to experience first-hand what had been a major portion of the duties of the position.

The effort required to oversee a small maintenance department and duties related thereto did not justify a $70,000-plus annual salary. With budget forecasts and previous management telling us that heavy spending precluded the possibility of any special projects for the next five years, there would be even less to do.

I consulted with port counsel and each of the individual commissioners regarding the best way to approach the port’s anticipated budget shortfall. The manager was eliminated. Wheeler was offered a severance package; he countered with a higher demand and received it.