Is Port officials' trip to Hawaii worth the $13K price tag? Your call
Thirteen thousand dollars is peanuts in the grand scheme of the Port of St. Helens' current $11.5 million annual budget. It's just slightly more than one-tenth of a single percent.
Considering the Port receives most of its operating cash as a direct outcome of its operations — rents, reimbursements, permits, licenses, etc. — and that taxpayers pitch in only $335,050 toward the entire budget, per the current fiscal year, taxpayers should extend even greater spending and travel latitude for three port commissioners — President Mike Avent, Larry Ericksen, Terry Luttrell — and outgoing executive director, Patrick Trapp, who recently spent roughly $13,000 on a trip to the Association of Pacific Ports winter conference in Hawaii.
We also need to trust that the commissioners — of which there are a total five, and three makes a majority — did not assemble while in Hawaii to deliberate about Port business. Doing so would violate Oregon's public meetings laws. Whenever a majority number of a governing board gets together to deliberate agency operations without notifying the public it is holding an official meeting of that respective agency, it's an illegal meeting, according to Oregon Public Meetings Law. If they get together to golf and only talked about the weather, that's fine. But if they discussed, for example, a strategy for hiring a new executive director, that's illegal.
But we can rest assured that didn't happen, right? Especially considering Commissioner Ericksen, who was on the trip, told us last week that, "I can tell you it just didn't happen."
But, then again, maybe not. There were no other members of the public or the press on hand to observe the Port commissioners' actions while in Hawaii. For all we know, they deliberated about Port business every night over Mai-Tais.
When it comes to government spending of public money — and all of the port's operating budget is public money, despite only a portion of it coming from property taxes — there is an expectation government officials will exercise a fiduciary responsibility to the public they serve. Be frugal. Don't incur unnecessary costs. Try to get the biggest bang for the buck you can.
Inherently, out-of-state, or in-state, overnight trips by elected public officials are not uncommon, and generally are valuable. For city officials, there is the annual League of Oregon Cities conference, this year being held at the Hilton in Portland. For our elected Columbia County commissioners, it's routine for at least one to represent Columbia County at the annual Association of Oregon Counties conference, which was held in November in Lane County. On a broader scale, Columbia County has routinely had representation at the National Association of Counties conference, which was held in Long Beach, Calif., last July.
And it has been somewhat commonplace for officials, either at the county or port, to travel to Washington, D.C., on specific occasions to blitz the congressional delegation specific to Columbia County, generally to lobby certain capital projects and initiatives on the hope of seeing those projects reflected in a federal appropriations bill.
Just like the Association of Pacific Ports winter conference the Port of St. Helens commissioners attended, these events provide elected officials a forum to discuss trends, risks and opportunities specific to their industry, to network within their professional peer group, and to step outside the bubble of their own inter-agency dynamic.
But here's the so-called rub: We expect a commonsense approach to attendance, one that considers possible violations of public meetings rules and that exhibits an understanding of economies of scale.
Why did the Port of St. Helens send four people, when really only two, at most, were needed?
Ericksen told the Spotlight that each attending member was able to glean a different perspective on the three-day conference, and that there is value in that.
Possibly. But if half of the attendees are soon set to leave the port, that value is compromised. Further, that approach opens the door to justify essentially unlimited attendance at such events.
While it would be great to have every elected and staff member attend, there is a cost-effectiveness variable to consider. In this case, it doesn't appear the Port bothered to make that assessment. Via a simple Internet search, a large portion of the winter conference consisted of networking opportunities, such as fishing ventures, golf outings and the like. Good times, for sure, but did it take three commissioners and the executive director to capture the public value of such an event? Likely not.
Consider, also, that the Port's finances have been on the wane.
Some have speculated the trip is compensation, of sorts, for the mostly volunteer Port commissioners. If that is the case, place it in the budget as such and let the public weigh in on its merits.
Instead, it looks like Port commissioners and executive staff subsidized family vacations with public Port dollars by attending little more than an annual networking junket that, as we're aware, hasn't been integral to solving the riddle of recruiting new industries to Port-owned properties.
The bottom line on public spending is that, ultimately, the agency doing the spending needs to justify it to the public it serves. In this case, three port commissioners and a soon-to-be-departed executive director traveled to Hawaii, as has been going on for years, to network with other port officials at a cost of roughly $13,000.
Was it worth it? That's for you to decide.