Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

June 15, 2001

SAME CIRCUS, different clowns.

That observation, while perhaps overly sardonic, is one way of characterizing the goings-on over the years at the Port of Portland.

The Port Commission was established by the Oregon Legislature in 1891 with the mission of maintaining and deepening the Columbia River shipping channel between the Rose City and the Pacific Ocean. Memberships on the Port Commission were prize political plums bestowed on the city's moneyed and social elite.

IF THE PRECEDING sounds familiar, that's because today's news bristles with controversy over how deep the river should be dredged anew to accommodate the massive freighters and tankers that now ply the oceans with the mega-tonnage of international trade. And, over the years, Oregon governors have continued to make sure that the city's upper-crust was well represented on the port board. However, there is room enough on the nine-member panel for a seat or two to be occupied by representatives of organized labor.

CURRENTLY, THE PORT is in the news for a number of reasons.

One is the high-handed and secretive way the now former Port Commission president, Bob Walsh, awarded the port's now former executive director, Mike Thorne, a retroactive pay raise of $47,000 that ratcheted his annual salary to $244,000, second-highest for state executives.

Walsh, the head of a highly-profitable, politically-connected general contracting firm started in the 1960s by his older brother, Tom, also unilaterally gave Thorne a $68,000 bonus. Willamette Week said the pay raise boosted Thorne's Public Employees Retirement System pension by $17,000 annually to $119,000. Thorne said he deserved the raise and bonus but would give some back. Walsh didn't respond to media inquiries. Several port commissioners expressed surprise and even shock at Walsh's long-green handoff to the outgoing director.

A QUESTION comes to mind: Haven't Messrs. Walsh and Thorne ever heard of the term "public service" to describe the holding of a governmental post? Walsh's big brother, Tom, who left the top job in Walsh Construction to accept the general managership of the Portland metro area's Tri-Met mass transit agency in the 1990s, turned down pay raises proferred by its governor-appointed board because he subscribed to the public service ethic.

ANOTHER QUESTION: Are Oregon voters ready to elect as governor a man who's already receiving more than $100,000 a year in state pension benefits? That's more than the governor is paid. The question arises because Thorne, a millionaire rancher who'll turn 61 soon, is running for the Democratic nomination for governor in next May's primary. A conservative Democrat, Thorne represented the Pendleton area in the Oregon Senate for 18 years. In his nine sessions at Salem, Thorne compiled a 46.5 percent "right" voting record on labor issues, according to AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Lanning.

Another reason the Port Commission and Thorne have been in the news stems from their sale of the port's Swan Island ship repair yard in August of 2000 to Cascade General for $30.8 million. Critics considered it a fire-sale price and wondered why the port didn't invite other companies to bid on the valuable public-owned property.

ONLY WEEKS AGO, Cascade General's general, Frank Foti, formerly of Cleveland, Ohio, where he was not in the ship repair business, reported that he was selling Dry Dock #4, the centerpiece of the Swan Island ship repair yard. Dry Dock 4, in place for more than 20 years, ranks as the largest floating dry dock in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 1,000 feet long and almost 200 feet wide, it has a lifting capacity of nearly 90 tons. Cascade General is said to be getting $25 million for #4 from the Grand Bahamas Shipyard in the city of Freeport in the Atlantic due east of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Interestingly, the spokesman for Cascade General and Foti is one Darrel Buttice, a retired Port of Portland public relations chief who's now a p.r. mouthpiece for hire. Press accounts have said that Foti was selling the big dry dock to satisfy his clamoring creditors. Port commissioners had earlier given him permission to sell it, and apologists for the sale have said #4 is not needed in Portland because ocean-going behemoths are now being repaired in cut-rate foreign repair yards. THE PORTLAND TRIBUNE, however, reported: "Because of its size, critics say the dock should be considered a national asset and its move offshore viewed with alarm." The Trib quoted a Northwest shipyard executive as saying: "Until they tow that dry dock away, we're going to try to do something about it."

While the imminent departure of one of the world's most eminent dry docks rings the bell of controversy loudly, its beginning stirred an even noisier argument. In 1976, the port exhorted voters in Portland metro area's three counties of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington to approve an $84 million bond measure to build a huge floating dry dock and make other improvements to the Swan Island shipyard.

"JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" was the incantation of the port's chief executive, Lloyd Anderson, a former Portland city commissioner, and his supporting cast of clowns in lining up support from the labor movement and the general public for the $84 million bond measure. The public relations and advertising on behalf of the 1976 ballot measure was handled by Ed Westerdahl III, the port's former executive director.

Only after voters okayed the bond measure did they begin to realize that the giant dry dock was not going to be built by local skilled workers but would be constructed in either South Korea or Japan. Westerdahl surfaced as an agent of a big South Korean firm that wanted the dry dock contract. The Korean company hired a former port commissioner, Borden Beck, as its Portland attorney.

PORT ENGlNEERS privately estimated that the dry dock would cost $26.9 million. But the labor movement, angered at being misled that the dry dock would be constructed in Portland or at least elsewhere in the United States, swung into action. The Labor Press dug out the information that a Japanese company and its Brazilian partner were building a similar dry dock for a shipbuilding company in Norfolk, Va., for $16 million, a figure the companies and their high-priced lawyers desperately wanted to keep secret. Bill Fast of the Marine Engineers Union, who was president of the Multnomah County Labor Council, teamed up with Lloyd Knudsen, executive secretary of the Portland Metal Trades Council, and State Senator Richard Groener of Clackamas County to call public attention to the dry dock bidding process. And Republican U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield stepped in and persuaded Democratic President Jimmy Carter's Trade Policy Staff Committee to hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C., so that Knudsen could testify against the federal government's policy of exempting contractors in developing foreign nations from the 5 percent U.S. tariff on imported dry docks. That exemption, initiated by Republican President Gerald Ford, helped discourage local bidders.

The hearing publicly disclosed the existence of the $16 million dry dock contract, and resulted in the same Tokyo contractor submitting a low $17.5 million bid on the Portland dry dock. Labor's key role in forcing an honest bid received glowing credit from Democratic Governor Bob Straub, but got sneers from port clowns.

A FEW YEARS LATER, when unionized port employees went on strike, the port hired a rent-a-cop to work undercover as a janitor and assigned him the role of an agent provocateur to attempt to stir up violence on the picket line and try to entice unionists to steal small items.

Now, back to Mike Thorne's aspiration to be governor. Besides his 46.5 percent labor voting record in the Oregon Senate at Salem, he co-sponsored an anti-union "right-to-work (for less) law" in the 1977 session, according to former AFL-CIO President Irv Fletcher.


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