The Port of Olympia operates its marine terminal in a politically tricky zone. Olympia is a community known for activists who vent their feelings about controversial cargo, water quality and other issues of the day.
So no surprise — the port’s marine cargoes and the profitability of its terminal are themes in both port commissioner races on the Nov. 7 ballot. Each incumbent up for re-election to a four-year term drew an opponent.
In the position 3 race, two-year incumbent E.J. Zita works as a professor at The Evergreen State College and has revealed a blunt personality at times in her quest for greater port transparency. But she is up against an ingrained institution.
Gigi McClure of Tenino is challenging Zita. McClure retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and has a long background in supply, maintenance, policy-making and operations.
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The two candidates differ strongly on whether the port should keep shipping fracking sands used by the fossil fuel industry — with Zita against and McClure in favor. But both candidates favor keeping the marine terminal in operation.
In the position 2 race, 11-year incumbent Bill McGregor faces Bill Fishburn. McGregor is a former port manager with experience working at three Washington ports and at Saint Martin’s University.
Fishburn is a project manager, human resources consultant and former Intel worker from Rainier who also is president of the Hispanic Roundtable of South Sound. He wants to put a bigger spotlight on port finances, including deficits at the marine terminal and terms of port leases. While McGregor favors keeping the terminals operating, Fishburn appears neutral and more concerned about financial responsibility.
Zita is easily the most controversial commissioner, but without her pushing we would not see much port progress on transparency issues. Zita met with residents concerned about military cargoes when the other commissioners didn’t want to. Eventually commissioners McGregor and Joe Downing agreed to hold public meetings.
As we had hoped, Zita raised questions about costs of port investments such as the new marina fuel dock, which still looks like a good investment but needs to pencil out. The other commissioners approved the project, with Zita opposed, but she brought the kind of skepticism necessary to avoid group-think.
Looking ahead, Zita thinks the port’s best return on investments are in real estate, and she supported the recent purchase of Lacey-area warehouses. Port staff says the property brings in larger rents than the mortgage; the agency plans to work with the Economic Development Council of Thurston County on how some of the space can serve as incubators to help start-up businesses.
Zita now wants to examine rents and fees the port is receiving from tenants such as Weyerhaeuser for use of the port’s log yards. So does Fishburn.
McClure favors shipping cargoes that are legal and not hazardous. We have taken that same position. McClure would bring organizational know-how in the transportation area. But it’s not clear how strongly she’ll work to make the port a leader in transparency or clean operations.
Also, McClure made some heavy-handed comments to The Olympian Editorial Board that raise questions about her judgment. She said public protests that cause other people to be fearful are terrorism. If that is her view, she may have difficulty navigating in local political waters.
The most experienced candidate is McGregor and one of his long-term efforts — to bring small cruise ships to Olympia — is coming to fruition. McGregor also supports ongoing work to diversify shipping cargoes — everything from corn to cows — that help the marine terminal pay costs and keep its workforce going.
On the other hand, we fault McGregor for seeking to oust then-commissioner Sue Gunn in 2015 after she missed a lot of meetings due to illness. And Fishburn brings more environmental awareness and a desire for more transparency. Fishburn is especially concerned about the port’s method of reporting depreciation on aging port assets and equipment that lose value over time.
Unfortunately Fishburn ran for port as a second choice, with little knowledge of the position.
The four candidates’ stances on Capitol Lake and the dammed Deschutes River — which await an environment study to determine whether an estuary, lake or combination of the two is best — were not varied enough to enter into our decision.
All things considered, we recommend that voters retain E.J. Zita and Bill McGregor at the Port of Olympia.