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April 11, 2017 10:00 AM, EDT

Port of Portland Names Leadership Finalists

The Port of Portland has narrowed the field to three in the search for new leadership at an operation that's crucial to economic development throughout the state of Oregon.

The port on April 10 named the finalists to replace Executive Director Bill Wyatt, who will retire in June. They are:

Curtis Robinhold, the current deputy executive director of the Port of Portland.

Jonathan Daniels, executive director and CEO of the Mississippi State Port Authority.

Stephanie Dawson, chief operating officer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The port manages the airport, marine shipping terminals and industrial properties around the city. Billions of dollars of goods and millions of passengers pass through its facilities annually. Its reach extends from travel and tourism to shipping Oregon-made products throughout the globe.

The port said it would be taking public comments online through April 24, and the nine-member commission will interview candidates in a closed-door executive session on May 10. It's expected to vote on Wyatt's successor during a public hearing later that month.

The schedule does not include an opportunity for members of the public to meet and ask questions of the candidates, a fact that critics jumped on April 10 as a process failure.

"This is one of the highest paid public positions in Oregon with tremendous impacts on the economy, the environment and the community," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Chapter of the Audubon Society. "Their challenges are as serious as any public agency in the state of Oregon."

The fact that there is no opportunity for the public to meet the candidates, he said, "perpetuates the insular culture at the port and sends a message to the community and the candidates that public inclusiveness is not a priority."

Kelley Bonsall, a port spokeswoman, said the commission's process included two public comment periods to give the community a chance to share feedback, as well as an advisory group to help assess the right set of experiences for this position.

Jonathan Daniels joined the Mississippi State Port Authority in 2013 and oversees the operations and development of the Port of Gulfport. It is the third busiest U.S. container port in the Gulf of Mexico, and is in the midst of a $570 million renovation and capacity expansion that will install new intermodal rail capacity, reconstruct the wharves, build new warehouse capacity and acquire new gantry cranes. He previously worked for ports in New York and Maine.

Stephanie Dawson has worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey since 1995. She is responsible for aviation, tunnels, bridges, terminals, port commerce, PATH Rail, the port's operations services department and its newly created Office of Storm Mitigation and Resilience. She oversees a staff of 3,500 at 22 facilities with revenue of $4.1 billion.

Robinhold was widely seen as Wyatt's heir apparent — with Wyatt's direct blessing. Both Wyatt and Robinhold served as chiefs of staff to former Gov. John Kitzhaber before arriving at the port. Robinhold was hired in 2014 and oversees all day-to-day aspects of the Port's operations, with 800 employees and annual revenues of about $300 million.

One of the immediate challenges facing the next director is what to do with the port's idled container shipping terminal. The lack of container shipping has been a source of contention around the state since the port lost its two main carriers, Hanjin Shipping and Hapag-Lloyd, in early 2015. The loss has forced Eastern Oregon agricultural producers to pay as much as $1,000 more per container to truck their goods to Tacoma, Washington.

The new director likely will have to find a new model for the terminal, a key service the public agency offers to Oregon exporters — but one which has long been a financial albatross for the port.

Wyatt's successor will also be responsible for the $1 billion modernization plan for Portland International Airport, which will upgrade the basic infrastructure of the facility over the next decade.

Wyatt currently earns $418,419 a year, and the port previously posted an annual salary range for the new director of $303,000 to $530,000.

Kevin Mannix, a Salem attorney and former gubernatorial candidate who has been circulating a proposal to reform the port's governance, said he was pleased to see that all the candidates have real experience in port management, as opposed to a general business background or political experience. The choice, he said, comes down to whether the commission is looking for fresh thinking, particularly when it comes to serving Oregon agriculture.

Mannix is still pushing for the port to rewrite its mission statement to become responsive to the entire state, and would like to see port commissioners appointed by county commissioners rather than the governor.

Sallinger, of the Audubon society, said he didn't want to prejudge the candidates, but saw little evidence in the information released of deep experience in environmental issues or community relations. "There was a heavy emphasis on growth and development," he said.

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