The good thing about odd-year or off-year elections like 2017 is that, from the electorate’s point of view, there are fewer races and issues clogging the ballot, allowing more time to read up on issues and candidates.
Yes, some attention will be diverted to the mayoral races in both Tacoma and Seattle, with the latter shaping up to be far more entertaining (provided you don’t live there). Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey is folding up its tent? No matter, a different circus is coming to town.
But down the ballot will be port commission races in both Pierce and King counties, with some meaty issues for voters to chew on and the potential for change and upheaval.
There are interesting parallels and connections between the two elections, beyond the obvious one of the tie-up of the ports through the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
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Both commissions have three of five seats up for a vote this year. In Tacoma, those are the positions held by Connie Bacon, Dick Marzano and Don Meyer, while in Seattle the commission seats on the ballot are filled by Tom Albro, John Creighton and Stephanie Bowman.
Both commissions also have multiterm veterans who aren’t running for re-election. Connie Bacon will depart at the end of her fifth term on the Port of Tacoma, while Tom Albro will leave at the conclusion of his second term.
We’ll know at the end of the filing period (May 15-19) who is officially running, and since the primary isn’t until Aug. 1, there will be time to develop questions with which to pummel the candidates.
There’s no shortage in either case of issues to generate those questions, but the menu of questions won’t be precisely the same for the cities. Candidates for both port commissions should be asked about the alliance and the specifics of promised operating-cost savings and capacity reductions. Then there’s the perennial favorite of how much money both ports are lifting from the wallets of property owners in the name of economic stimulus.
Port of Seattle candidates should be grilled on the airport, an operation not under Tacoma’s or the alliance’s purview, how it’s going to accommodate growth there and what happens if commercial service comes to Paine Field in Everett.
Also on the Port of Seattle election-issue agenda is the Sodo arena. So far, no candidate has emerged to run on a platform of “let Chris Hansen have that street; we can all co-exist down here,” unique though that position would be.
But the dominating issue in the Port of Seattle election is likely to be the commission’s own managerial competence, in light of the pay-raise scheme that was slapped down by the state auditor’s office and the messy split with port Chief Executive Ted Fick, who lasted barely two years in the job. “What responsibility do you bear for those fiascoes and what are you doing to prevent a repeat?” would be worthwhile questions to pose to incumbents and challengers.
That would suggest the Port of Tacoma races will be, comparatively speaking, tame, but Tacoma candidates will have their own controversies to wrestle with. Beyond the enduring issue of whether the seaport alliance was a good deal for taxpayers of Pierce County, given the Port of Tacoma’s competitive strengths vs. Seattle, there’s the hefty matter of industrial uses and economic development and the future of the Tideflats.
The port is in the thick of that issue, not just literally from its physical location but through its promotion of the liquid methanol plant and the resulting bruising confrontation with community groups. The issue didn’t go away even though the plant did; the contentiousness lives on, if at a lower temperature, with the proposed liquefied natural gas plant. With the city making noises about a comprehensive review of planning for the Tideflats, port commission candidates need to have some ideas about how they envision the area’s future, should voters ask — and they should.
That’s a lot to cram into a voter’s pamphlet statement, and we haven’t even gotten to the big external issues: What’s the long-term strategy for dealing with competition from the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican ports on the West Coast and, thanks to the Panama Canal expansion, Gulf and East Coast? What will financial turmoil and consolidation of carriers, fleets and port calls mean for us? What about labor relations and avoidance of a repeat of the debacle of a few years ago in which port operations nearly seized up?
Well, port commission candidates? We’re listening.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.