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Port Governance: Critical analysis or sloppy thinking?

As I viewed the truncated video of the November 13, 2017 Commission Meeting, I observed a startling juxtaposition involved in the discussion on the log loaders. On one side was Commissioner Zita asking for a fuller financial analysis as well as delving into the meaning and impact of important terms such as productivity. On the other side, there was an evident lack of interest by Commissioners Downing and McGregor for this process of due diligence. As I watched the behaviors of these two commissioners, certain descriptors came to my mind: closemindedness, willful ignorance, and misogynistic disrespect.

In the recent past, the port staff has provided project income pro forma presentations (e.g., the fuel dock) prior to the approval of revenue–generating capital items. Perhaps, with the departure of Finance Director Jeff Smith, neither the present port staff nor the outside financial consultant is willing or able to produce this formal analysis for the commission’s deliberation. For whatever reason, and despite Commissioner Zita’s specific request, this documentation was not provided in sufficient form.

A good example of critical analysis was Commissioner Zita’s examination of the term productivity which was frequently used in support of acquiring the log loaders. Productivity can become a buzz word if not critically analyzed. The proponents cited increased productivity resulting in less turn–around time for loading log ships. When a word or phrase functions as a buzz word (e.g., economic development, economic engine, “Make America Great Again”) it moves from stimulating thought to stimulating reflexive feelings.

In the commission deliberation, Commissioner Zita delved into the quantification and beneficiaries of the increased productivity from the proposed log loaders. Her probing analysis uncovered that neither the port nor longshore workers benefited financially. Only the shipper (Weyerhaeuser and other timber interests) benefited. The reality that she uncovered was that the port, already losing money on the log exports, would incur an even greater loss with this large capital expenditure. If the port had an economically viable agreement with the timber interests, or if those interests were willing to pay more for the port to acquire the loaders, then that would create a win–win situation. Evidently, that is not in the cards as witnessed by the Weyerhaeuser representative at the meeting urging the purchase of the loaders, but not offering to pay for the added benefit to his company.

The main problem with governance at the port resides in mythic thinking. A myth is a story that is a governing narrative for a particular grouping of people. Myths are necessary for the cohesion of the group, but are morally dependent upon critical interpretation by the group. When a myth is not subject to critical analysis, it can become very distorting to a society. Here, it posits a golden age that never was. An example of this type of mythic distortion can be seen in the “Make America Great Again” slogan. This phrase appeals to an atavistic feeling devoid of a critical reality check. It harkens to a paternalistic fantasy where “Father knows best”, and women know their rightfully subservient status. To say the least, this type of mythic thought is problematic.

At the commission meeting, Commissioner Downing brought up the 100th anniversary of the Port of Olympia and of its rich heritage. I agree that it is important to remember our heritage and to celebrate it. However, there is need for critical thought in embracing any heritage. One must remember that heritage is not fate or destiny, and must be viewed contextually. As a metaphorical example, take the heritage of the Pony Express. It celebrates the lore and benefit of this conveyance before it was eclipsed by the advent of the railroad and telegraph. The Pony Express was great in its time and leaves an important legacy. However, it would be highly irrational to argue for its continuance or return.

Prior to the advent of Interstate 5, the marine terminal at the Port of Olympia had strategic significance as a key transportation link. However, since the interstate highway, its strategic importance has changed significantly. Here is where a distorted mythic thinking enters the governing process at the port. Wishing for the return of a “golden age” is rather fanciful thinking which is outside the bounds of responsible governance. At some point, rationality must intercede and planning at the port must become reality–based. It is apparent to me that we have not yet reached this rational point in governance, save for Commissioner Zita’s commendable efforts.

Denis Langhans is a longtime observer of the Port of Olympia and regularly attends and speaks at Port meetings.



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