Michelle Morris just wrapped up a six-month stint on the Port of Olympia commission. She was appointed to fill an interim role after former commissioner Sue Gunn resigned. Morris was surprised by the port experience, and her view of the port likely will surprise.
Long before that experience, though, Morris grew up in Lakewood — her father served in the Air Force — and she also spent five formative years in Alaska, which included working aboard a king crab fishing boat.
Morris later attended The Evergreen State College, where she earned an undergraduate degree in finance and was set to pursue a graduate degree in environmental studies until her focus shifted to oppose a proposed biomass plant at the college. She also is the co-owner of Sound Resource Management Group, a consulting firm started by her husband, Jeff, which offers expertise in solid waste management and recycling. Morris, too, previously served on Thurston County’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee.
We sat down with Michelle to ask her about her time on the port commission.
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Q: If newly elected commissioners Joe Downing and E.J. Zita came to you for advice about the port, what would you tell them?
A: I would tell them to use the Port of Olympia staff’s resources to their advantage. Go into the job with an open mind and don’t come in with preconceptions and judgments about the port. There is a lot of information out there about the port that is wrong. There were a couple of surprises for me in the last six months. The biggest surprise was how well I got along with the staff and how easy my transition was. The staff goes out of the way to bring a commissioner up to speed. It’s just amazing how they scramble to educate you and get you the information you need. Before I was appointed, I had heard rumors that the port was hard to work for and uncooperative, but nothing was further from the truth.
Q: What was the second surprise?
A: I was astonished at the (Port of Olympia commission candidates) campaign rhetoric I heard. I was astonished at the misinformation that goes out as fact from local organizations, organizers and people running for office. That was a big disappointment and a shock for me.
Q: What was the misinformation you heard?
A: If you listened to the rhetoric, you would think the port was dredging all the time. The first time they dredged in 30 years was in 2008 and then they had a maintenance dredge in 2013-2014, which took place in East Bay and at the marine terminal. The work came in under budget and was paid for by bonds. When people pay property taxes to the port, it strictly goes to environmental cleanup and paying off bonds. The total cost to a property owner with a house valued at around $200,000 is about $38 a year, or the cost of one latte every month. When you listen to the five or 10 people who regularly criticize the commission and port, they neglect to mention these important facts.
Q: What do you make of this ongoing criticism of the port?
A: To be really honest, I used to be part of that group and worked with them and supported them. But after being a commissioner, I was astonished at their inaccuracies. They (the port critics) are passionate about their story and it’s their story and they aren’t willing to change the story. I wish I could redirect them. If they weren’t willing to change, there was nothing I could do. During meetings, I acknowledged their passion, thanked them and moved on. How much time is wasted on these people? And they think they are speaking for everyone, and that is really frustrating.
Q: Will you run for commissioner?
A: I believe I’ve lost my constituents — the “squeaky wheels” who helped me get the appointment. I’d love to do it again, and I loved the leadership role and bringing people together to work out issues. We did that beautifully with updating the state Environmental Policy Act (as it relates to the port), but after that it got pretty muddy and I’m sad about that. Who is more vilified than the port? President Barack Obama? It’s astonishing to me.