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.
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.