It’s back to the drawing board for the Port of Olympia commission after Commissioner Joe Downing’s choice of consultant — a consultant who would come in and help the commission improve its relationship — was rejected.
The port commission will now consider consultant Debbie Rough-Mack of Rough-Mack Consulting or broaden its search outside the area, possibly to Seattle, Tacoma or Portland.
Downing suggested the idea of hiring a consultant after the port commission had some difficult and heated meetings during the summer and fall. That led him to pitch the idea of having someone come in to help the commission with team-building or “process improvement,” as he put it Thursday during a special work session.
Downing and port HR Manager Jeri Sevier had contacted six local consultants, narrowed it to four, and settled on Doug Mah, of Doug Mah & Associates, and Rough-Mack.
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Downing’s pitch to the commission Thursday was to go with Mah, a former mayor of Olympia.
“He has been a state worker and an elected official,” Downing said. “He’s very familiar with port activity and very familiar with the process of government.”
But Downing mentioned he had hired Mah to help him with his campaign to become a port commissioner last year. Downing defeated incumbent George Barner.
That disclosure got a cool reception from Commissioners E.J. Zita and Bill McGregor.
“I kind of feel it’s inappropriate, given his relationship with you,” said Zita about Mah.
McGregor acknowledged he had some of the same concerns, leading him to seek an opinion from Heather Burgess, the port’s legal counsel.
“It doesn’t trigger any conflict of interest issues as long as he is no longer under contract with any commissioner,” Burgess said.
McGregor said he was fine with Downing’s recommendation as long as legal counsel was fine with it.
Zita was unmoved.
“I’m not fine with that,” she said.
Downing defended his choice, saying that when Mah worked on his campaign, it was all business.
“It wasn’t easy for me and he did not favor me,” he said. “It was tough love, but it produced results.”
Zita asked whether the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County had been contacted.
Sevier said she had contacted them, and while they were open to the work, they don’t normally do mediation in public.
Zita said she realized that will be a challenge for any consultant.
Despite the opposition to Mah, Zita remained optimistic about Downing’s plan to bring in a consultant.
“We’ll make it work,” she said.