Local News: Port of Astoria Commissioners consider firing director

Local News: The Port of Astoria dropped a bombshell this week during a special meeting, where commissioners discussed firing the executive director. [3:37]

The Port of Astoria held a special commission meeting Tuesday, in which they proposed firing executive director Jim Knight.

Commissioners, by a 3-2 margin, made statements in support of his firing. The meeting was not a public hearing, and no audience comments were taken.

Commissioners William Hunsinger, Dirk Rohne and Frank Spence made statements indicating they supported firing Knight. Commissioners Robert Stevens and Jim Campbell voiced objections . Spence is commission chair. He said the current situation was the result of many years of mismanagement and neglect. Knight has been port director since the fall of 2014.

Knight was not given an opportunity to respond during the meeting, which adjourned immediately after all commissioners had made statements. Knight’s attorney, Kyle Buse, listened via conference call. Port attorney Eileen Eakens was also at the meeting.

Rohne said Knight was guilty of mismanagement at the top of the organization. Hunsinger said the commission rarely knew what Knight was doing with port projects until they became full blown crises. The port has been plagued in recent years with crumbling infrastructure issues, tenant issues, and high legal fees., among other serious problems. Rhone cited the recent work of a committee convened by the commission to analyze port operations:

Commissioner Rohne: “The Port Commission formed an ad hoc finance committee made up of experts in banking and finance, to analyze the port’s position and analyzing its challenges and opportunities. It includes local professionals who are highly respected in our community. This committee seemed incredulous at Knight’s lack of understanding of his own organization. If the ad hoc hearings were an interview or a test, then it was a stunning failure of the port management.”

A recent analysis of the port by consultant Mary McArthur, executive director of Col-Pac, Columbia Pacific Economic Development District, gave Knight and the commission stern advice about getting the port back on track to correct financial issues, and renew the trust of the public and the state. McArthur began her study of the port in 2016.

McArthur detailed issues plaguing the Port of Astoria, which include deferred maintenance on its facilities that threaten its ability to function, huge legal bills, and lack of revenue. She cited $29 million in needed maintenance on Pier 2 alone, and said the port is $15.9 million dollars in debt.

Commissioner Stevens called the process rushed and possibly motivated by a hidden agenda, since sitting port commissioner Hunsinger, a vocal critic of Knight, steps down in three weeks. Hunsinger’s term ends July 1st and commissioner-elect Scott McClaine will take his place.

Stevens said a 3-2 vote was not enough in his view, to justify termination. He favored full consensus or at least a majority vote of four to take such a serious action. He urged commissioners to consider the financial consequences of firing Knight, such as severance pay and legal fees.

Commissioner Stevens: “If we go about this half baked and we rush through it, and if we find that the worse case exists and try to relieve this director for cause, we’re going to see an inevitable lawsuit. Now all of these financial factors could cost the port into the millions. How in the world does this improve the port financially?”

In closing the meeting, Commission Chair Frank Spence stated that the port is at a crossroads and could not continue “going down the path that we have been going down.”

The commission will meet again to consider the issue of Knight’s employment as part of their regular meeting on Tuesday, June 18, to follow port personnel procedures and allow Knight and his attorney time to respond.

I’m Joanne Rideout reporting.

Many thanks to correspondent Roger Rocka for the audio used in this story.