The Port: low pay, but high returns

The job pays a mere $6,000 a year, but big money is driving the debate in this year's two Port of Seattle Commission races.

Make that should be driving the debate, in position 5 at least. Incumbent Claire Nordquist, appointed last year to replace now-Mayor Paul Schell, benefited by an extra $47,000 through Port-paid travel expenses, yet isn't being called on it. He likens his numerous overseas flights to attend seminars and conferences to on-the-job training. While some Port critics wonder if a $10,700 trip to Australia is really necessary, he is getting top media endorsements and little testing from Socialist Workers candidate Chris Rayson, a railroad switchman who got just six percent of the vote in a four-way 1997 Port race won by Paige Miller.

Conversely, it's a contentious, budget-waving crowd jostling for position 2, with spending critic Mark Ufkes raising a ruckus over Port expense and budget policies. Among other issues, Ufkes (who reminds everyone it's pronounced UFF-kiss) is irked by travel waste as well as taxpayer subsidies going to the Port rather than to needed social services around the county. Similarly, candidates Bob Edwards, Al Yuen, Richard Pope, and Ernie Ludwick all want to trim or end taxpayer support for a Port that charges the lowest fees on the West Coast to its corporate customers, while Betty Jane Narver wants at least more spending accountability.

Candidates Larry Weldon and Fletch Waller (the chair of the Port's ethics board) put less emphasis on this issue. But popular cruise line exec and one of Fortune's "leading women's entrepreneurs" Laurie McDonald Jonsson is gaining notice by promising a middle ground—managed growth and increased public confidence in spending. Still, as the owner of a Seattle cruise ship company, wouldn't a position as commissioner pose a conflict of interest with business at the Port's new cruise terminal? It's another big money question. As Ludwick asks, noting how establishment Port candidates attract the major contributors, "Why are most of them big shipping companies and cruise lines?" Because they expect something in return? Just a guess.

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