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Port response a sign of secretive ways

January 6th, 2013 by Rachel Pritchett

By Rachel Pritchett

When Tim Thomson took over as Port of Bremerton chief executive officer, he told me he’d work hard to accommodate the needs of the press, therefore the public.

In the year since then, and in one example this week, communication has been less than forthcoming.

On Tuesday, I submitted a public-documents request for copies of the two responses to the port’s request for proposals seeking private managers for the Bremerton Marina. Marsh Andersen LLC and its principal owner, Robert Wise of Bainbridge Island, was one. Marinas International Inc. of Dallas was the other.

I quickly learned in interviewing Wise and Marinas International Chief Financial Officer Jo Wilsmann that both companies would entertain the idea of not just managing, but actually purchasing the marina that cost $34 million to build.

A discussion about a sale would be exempted and the port would not have to release the documents. But a sale was not what the request for proposals called for.

Suddenly this story wasn’t just about taxpayers losing $1,000 per day on their reluctant investment that so far has failed, as important as that was. Now it was about the future of one of the largest public assets in Kitsap County.

I knew the documents are by law publicly available on request, and that it would be a stretch for the port to refuse to release them. To make sure, I contacted Tim Ford, the state’s assistant attorney general for government accountability. He agreed the proposals are public. He suggested that in my request I also ask for supporting legal citation, if the port refused my request.

On Thursday, I received an email from the port stating that “public release of (request for proposal) responses prior to port commission action could result in private gain or public loss by disclosing critical private proprietary terms, conditions and values that may be used in future negotiations with the port.” While not an explicit denial, that response indicates an unwillingness to share public information. There was no supporting legal citation.

If that’s the case, the staff at the port and three commissioners alone would decide the fate of the marina, with zero public knowledge of the proposals on the table, and zero pubic input on any resultant decision.

Sound familiar?

That’s how the marina got built in the first place.

The Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal also filed a request for the documents on Tuesday and received a similar response. The port has until Wednesday to respond to my request.

The Kitsap Sun is looking at next steps, and so is the Business Journal.

Business Journal Publisher Lary Coppola said he is consulting with the Journal’s attorney about options to get this essential material released to the public.

“We are considering filing a complaint with the attorney general,” he said.

Coppola said, “What really strikes me about this is the arrogance about the port saying that they don’t have to provide public records when they do.”

I have found during Thomson’s year as CEO a renewed sense of secretiveness, and I understand the arrogance that Coppola speaks of.

Under Thomson, the port has community meetings without prior press notification. Port staffers recently met with Harper Pier neighbors without notifying the press. That’s not illegal, but it doesn’t help taxpayers know what’s going on.

Unless I jump up and down, I’m not routinely included when discussion documents are handed out at port meetings.

Every year after a proposed port budget is released, I meet with the CEO and budget writer Becky Swanson as I interpret the complex document. This year, I didn’t get a lot of help.

Too often, phone calls are returned late, or not at all.

Under Thomson, real conversation and decision-making isn’t happening in public meetings. Port regular meetings now are brief and perfunctory. The only thing on this coming Tuesday’s agenda are a couple of lease adjustments.

The port’s commissioners, by and large, are responsive to my inquiries, with the exception of Roger Zabinski, who responds only when the topic is one he wants to discuss. I’ve asked to hear his vision for the Chico boat ramp area. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

The port’s airport and marinas chiefs, Fred Salisbury and Steve Slaton, have been responsive to my requests. Support staff always is responsive and professional, as well.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Port of Bremerton. One of the few communications I had with Thomson this week was an email from him asking what I thought of the new port logo, now sporting a centennial banner.

Here’s my response on the centennial. Port commissioners have an rare opportunity as the second 100 years unfolds. I think we’ll soon see some top-level retirements at the port, as many as three. I believe these retirements will give commissioners an opportunity to do a full search for replacements who have the ability to understand and respond to the press acting on behalf of the public. I urge commissioners not to repeat taking the easy and less expensive route of promoting from within.

I will continue to press for these documents, because the port is not a private company about to make a private deal.

This is the public’s business, every piece of it.

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3 Responses to “Port response a sign of secretive ways”

  1. Fred Says:

    I’m impressed. This is some actual reporting in the Kitsap Sun. So much of what I read in the Sun is as if the reporter is the gov. spokesmen. It as if the reporter works for the City of Bremerton which explains why they refuse to ask the tough questions, push for the truth and report the actual facts. Two factual stories I know the KS refuses to report is Judge Docter and his use of an unsworn, unqualified robe wearing “judge” to rule on Redflex Inc. Infractions. Second is Peter Fishers trip to Arizona and his stay at the RItz Carlton in exchange for his positive testimony on behalf of Redflex Inc. All expense aid for by Redflex and his wage paid by tax payers.
    This sort of stuff is all available by public record but Kitsap Sun refuses to look into it or report it.
    Since Redflex Inc. Of Arizona, owns, operates, and maintains the Automated Red Light Program and since the City refuses to adjust the yellow light time in order to profit itself and Redflex Inc. Since this is a BUSINESS endeavor not a safety program maybe you as a reporter could be the one to investigate it and report on the facts?
    IF so I have all the info you need as acquired thru public records.

  2. Roger Gay Says:

    Good questions to ask, maybe even at the public meeting on Tuesday, 8 Jan. This will be the first meeting of 2013. Any discussion by the commissioners would be as individuals as any meeting of two or more is a public meeting. I doubt waiting a week for a public document will make that much of a difference, it gives the commissioners time to look at the documents too. Maybe there is information that could be proprietary, maybe the documents could have that information deleted.

    I go to the meetings and at times even ask questions or make comments. Most of the time it is the same 5 or 6 individuals at the meetings. If I need information or copies of material the Port has been very helpful. I do tend to get a different take on what is said because I look at it as a voter and taxpayer, not as a reporter looking for headline news.

    Frankly, having seen the Sun and its reporting over the years, I would be very hesitant to be interviewed by most of the reporters (Sun or otherwise) without very careful documentation of what I said. Many times words or comments are taken out of context to allow for the “headline news” article. I understand the goal is to sell papers, but journalism is more than just selling a 75 cent, blurry picture, read in less than 15 minutes newspaper.

    As for the press acting on behalf of the public, if it was done full time on the many issues facing the public with non biased reporting and factual data, the press could act for the public. When it is the pick a cause of the week reporting the public can and does lose interest fast and does not benefit from the narrow and limited focus of the reporting.

    Roger Gay
    South Kitsap

  3. Fred Says:

    All this brings up some very interesting points and observations. I’ve been thinking about the public records aspect. it has been my experience that they can use public records laws against you. for Instance, it has been my experience that they respond in the first 5 days as required but then say it will take 30 days to locate the record then in in 30 days they say it is a big job and will take another 30 days. In one case I filed a public record request with the city of Bremerton and without warning me they sent the records over a six month period in “installments” So much for PROMPT.
    I have also have been told flat out the record does not excist even though I know it does and then am given the run around telling me to file it at another office and the whole process ends up taking two months. In the end I got the easily located record and see why they did not want to give it to me seeing how it was evidence of a violation of law by one of their employees. So basically they give me the run around and hope I grow tired of asking to examine the public record.

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