They call it the Economic Engine of Pierce County.
We’re supposed to consider it vital to the future of our economy, our security and our way of life.
But if any of that is true, why does the Port of Tacoma have such lousy elections?
Year after year, election after election, the races for the port commission are issue-free zones. Platitudes replace debate. Certain truths are rarely challenged. Incumbents run unopposed or opposed by candidates who don’t or can’t push where the incumbents are most vulnerable.
This suits port insiders just fine. The port is a government agency that asserts that it’s really a business. Questions about policies and directions are dismissed with patronizing assertions that it’s all so complicated that we shouldn’t worry our heads over it.
Too much transparency – with open meetings and open records – might cause the economic engine to sputter.
But there are cracks forming in the bunker on Sitcum Way that the insiders lament but the voters and taxpayers should take advantage of. The recession has caused reductions in cheap Asian imports. Canadian and Mexican governments are trying to outsubsidize our government subsidies. Trading hundreds of manufacturing jobs for more container storage for NYK might be no trade at all if NYK backs out of the deal.
Imports continue to dwarf exports. Manufacturing finishes a distant second to containers. A move to build a transshipment center in Thurston County has blown up. Layoffs have damaged staff loyalty. The tradition that taxpayers should pick up the cost of road and rail improvements so as to keep rates for shippers low is being challenged.
So there’s lots of stuff to talk about. And a forum last week with five of seven port candidates at the Tacoma City Club was the first real chance to do so.
One open seat had drawn two candidates – Foss Waterway Development Authority director Don Meyer and longtime officeholder Cathy Pearsall-Stipek. Two incumbents have drawn challengers – Dick Marzano will face off against Charles Creso, and Connie Bacon will face Bill Casper and Bernardo Tuma.
But the mostly vague questions brought mostly vague answers. The names NYK and Maytown were never uttered. Open government wasn’t a topic. Wanting improvements to infrastructure but being silent on how to pay for them is enough to get a pass.
Casper seemed most animated only when he was talking about nuclear power. Tuma couldn’t show up and Creso didn’t show up. Pearsall-Stipek could speak for the mad-as-hell taxpayer, but she hasn’t studied the issues enough to get beyond slogans.
Meyer is the closest to a thoughtful candidate who knows the issues. But too often he resorts to code phrases, like when he says he favors transparency and getting terminals built “on time and on budget.” Is that a shot at the NYK terminal troubles? Does he think the board dodges open government laws? Does he want to distinguish himself from all those candidates who prefer opacity and projects that are over time and over budget?
Through it all, the incumbents are allowed to repeat that though the seas are rough, the ship is stable and we must stay the course.
The lack of substance could be blamed on incumbents who don’t want to talk about specifics and challengers who don’t have the ability or willingness to rock the boat.
But it also could be due to a tedious and rule-bound format by the Tacoma City Club and its partners in the League of Women Voters. The format favors generalized responses as long as they don’t exceed the time limit.
The City Club is one of the few organizations considered neutral ground that can command attendance by candidates. But if the club doesn’t loosen up, it will abdicate that role. Let the candidates converse, have a moderator who can follow up and make them answer the questions, allow the voters in the room to ask the questions.
And end the tyranny of the danged timer.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657