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On Bucking A Trend, Or, Yes, Virginia, Sometimes Politicians Deserve Respect September 19, 2008

We are all guilty, from time to time, of beating up on our politicians–and why not?

It only takes a moment to think of someone we elected who immediately went “off the rails”…who today can’t even remember the promises they are busy breaking…and who can’t wait to get out of elective office so they can move on to lobbying their former colleagues.

Occasionally, however, we come across officials who are bucking the trend: working hard, dedicated to doing a good job for the voters that put ‘em in office…and doing that good job even when all around them were working feverishly to bring on indictments.

Such a politician is the subject of today’s unusually upbeat story…and with that said, allow me to introduce you to Port of Seattle Commissioner Lloyd Hara.

Who loved the movie Pulp Fiction? For me, the thing that made the movie was that the story was not told in “linear” time; instead bouncing around a bit, with the end eventually becoming the beginning.

Today, telling the Lloyd Hara story, we’ll do the same.

The Port of Seattle is a public agency charged with operating the water terminals within its area of jurisdiction as well as Sea-Tac Airport. It has a real estate operation which leases certain assets to tenants, is involved in efforts to improve regional freight mobility, and has relationships with certain contract providers and vendors who, among other things, make available legal and consulting services.

The Port has a CEO, five Commissioners who serve as a Board of Directors (for the princely sum of $6000 a year…), and a staff who perform the daily tasks of running a Port’s operations.

When you think of Seattle politics I suspect you imagine people who look like they could be working at Microsoft mingling with people who are squeaky-clean idealists—and I’m here to tell you that this can occasionally happen.

But it might surprise you to know that Seattle is far from squeaky-clean in its political history. In an effort to write their own chapter in the history of local corruption, former Port CEO Mic Dinsmore and certain members of the Port staff seem to have run the Port as their personal fiefdom.

It appears that lavish personal entertaining on the taxpayer’s dime was considered a personal perk, along with lavish, no-bid contracts for the consulting and legal services (who appear to have been associates of Dinsmore) that were concealed from the Commissioners…the effort to inappropriately influence Port elections is also alleged…and in the case of the contract for the “cruise ship consultant/operator”, a deal was struck that guaranteed the consultant/operator profit no matter how the year’s business turned out–and most of the profit even if things went well–despite the fact that the Port put up virtually all the assets and took on almost all the liability.

Now I’m not saying everyone involved was trying to profit off the Port, but I will say that the Commissioners, for many years, didn’t seem to be noticing what was happening…and it was probably far too easy to conceal what was being hidden, if you get my drift.

We’ll return to this story in a minute…but first, let’s jump back to a moment in Rotary Club history that also features in Lloyd Hara’s history.

Rotary International was a men’s-only operation for many years, but the door was cracking open because of a court case involving a Rotary Club in Duarte, California that eventually found its way to the Supreme Court. In 1984 Hara, as the Rotary “Governor’s Special Representative” led the formation of the Seattle-International District Rotary Club…and the club was to eventually challenge Rotary International by being the first Rotary who sought from the time of its formation to initiate women (only Duarte had women members at the time); a challenge that resulted in Karilyn Van Soest attending the International Convention in 1989 as only the second woman ever to be the President of a Rotary Club.

By 1989 Hara had already served as the youngest Auditor in King County history and was in the middle of his 12-year run as Seattle City Treasurer, earning numerous awards for the effort, including being named to City and State Magazine’s Public Officials of the Year list in 1987 (the class of five includes Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor of San Francisco at the time) and, as he tells us, named the Nation’s Best Treasurer in 1987.

He left the Treasurer job in 1991 to become the Regional Director for FEMA (back when they actually hired for competence), and he had also been teaching at Seattle University…and then in 2005 he was elected Port Commissioner (a legally nonpartisan position) on a reform platform, earning a variety of endorsements, including that of the Sierra Club. In the same election John Creighton became the second half of the “Reformist Bloc” to join the Commission.

At about the same time, the Washington State Auditor’s office was charged by initiative to, for the first time, perform “performance audits” in addition to the financial audits they had always conducted…the Port had released “incomplete” results from an internal audit of their own…the pressure from all the sudden reform caused Dinsmore to leave (leaving a questionable sudden pay raise in his wake)…and in December 2007 the State’s audit report was released—causing lots of things to hit lots of fans.

Among the things: the Commission hired a former US Attorney to conduct an internal investigation, the current US Attorney is conducting a criminal investigation, and the Commission has revoked many of the powers previously enjoyed by Port staff.

The State Auditor’s office presented 51 recommendations, new CEO Tay Yoshitani, previously Executive Director of the Port of Oakland, California joined with the Commission in moving toward adopting the recommendations…and as of August the Commission reports 45 of the 51 recommendations will have been implemented.

A new emphasis on accountability is emerging, something Hara and fellow Commissioner Bill Bryant discussed in a February, 2008 Town Square conversation.

Time for another “non-linear time” moment: in 1972 Hara was named as a respondent to a lawsuit, in his capacity as King County Auditor, in which a Mr. John Singer and a Mr. Paul Barwick sought a marriage license, which Hara, despite his personal support for the request, declined to issue—the second such lawsuit in US history.

To make a long story short, Washington State had recently adopted gender-neutral language in its statutes and regulations, and the Plaintiffs felt that the new language could be interpreted to permit same-sex marriage. This interpretation was not shared by the appellate courts, however, and Hara’s decision to reject the application was upheld.

I really began to appreciate Hara when his “Port Notes” began showing up in my email. I can truthfully say that I have never received more detailed and useful reports from any elected official…this being one example:

“Lora Lake Apartments: This complex in the shadow of the 3rd runway progressed from scheduled demolition, to a bone of contention with low-income housing advocates, to a pending transfer to King County Housing Authority, to a toxic waste site. It’s now unclear how severe the problem is, or whether the complex can ever be preserved as residential property. Needless to say, the transfer is on hold.

Eastside Corridor: After almost 2 years of negotiations, we authorized the purchase of the corridor from the BNSF and gave King County an easement for the trail. Every interested party has begun to weigh in — hikers and bikers, adjacent home owners, rail and transit interests, eastside cities and Snohomish County interests, business people and the public in general. We plan public hearings this summer and expect to broker a dual use facility of transit/rail and trail. It’s important to bring this corridor under public ownership, and the Port is probably the only government with funding capacity to make the $107 million acquisition.

3rd Runway: 20 years into the project, you may spot an FAA Learjet landing as testing continues this summer, looking forward to first commercial traffic in November. As you can see, siting a new airport in the region would be a very major undertaking.

T-30/91: We must complete the cruise terminal at T-91 in time for the 2009 season, and convert T-30 for container use shortly thereafter. Only T-91’s electrical cables are slated for reuse – not the gangway, the terminal building or other assets – so this bears watching for cost overruns.

T-25: On a 3-2 vote, we approved surface improvements for potential use as an extended container facility. John Creighton and I voted against. We originally contemplated a cold storage facility here, and I wanted to make sure the intended use was properly bid.”

–(Note: links are as they appeared in the original email)

As I said, this is far more detailed than the usual “Congressman So-and-so met with residents at the Senior Center” that I often see in my inbox—and as a taxpayer, it’s much appreciated.

All is not sunshine and rainbows, however. In 1991, Hara was investigated by Seattle’s Board of Ethics because of his relationship with Stuart C. Johnston. There were concerns that Johnston, Hara’s lead campaign fund-raiser and also a manager of City investment funds, might be inappropriately tied to Hara, who was the official responsible for overseeing the management of those same investment funds. He was later cleared of having committed any ethics violations.

Hara was fined $400 in March of 2008 by the State of Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission because his 2005 campaign failed to make certain filings in a timely manner.

Christopher Cain, who runs “The Port Observer”, was kind enough to offer this assessment of Hara and the Port reform efforts:

“Lloyd Hara runs a good campaign effort under the clever guidance of Sharon Gilpin, a campaign consultant. Effective campaigns are the key to remaining a Seattle Port Commissioner. As a Port Commissioner, and former accountant for the City of Seattle Mr. Hara has exhibited excellent qualities favorable to the public interest.

However, Lloyd has from time to time fallen prey to the old school ways of behaving badly. Numerous junkets to far off places will not make you a better steward of the public purse. Port CEO Tay Yoshitani’s handling of the accounting scandals was typical old boy club style politics and Hara has cozied up only because he wants so badly to be a part of that club. But Lloyd’s loyalty to the public must wreak havoc in attempting to balance the two relationships…

…The last few years have revealed some amazing things that have always lurked beneath the surface, but the path to change has been focused on changing public perception (as usual) and not really on how things are done at the Port. You can take the criminals out of the port but you can’t get corruption out of a system designed to be corrupt…Therefore, without someone willing to take on the establishment who understands this, all actions are futile exercises designed to get you re-elected. Lloyd understands this very well and likes to be a Port Commissioner.”

So that’s the story for today: despite what we often believe, there are politicians out there who are doing a good job for us, who have a history of working for the public good, and who like to keep us aware of where our money goes.

Not all is perfect…and some of his critics wonder if he is up for his current job…but all in all this is a politician I can surely respect, and in these times, that’s pretty good.