A divided Port of Astoria Commission voted Tuesday to anonymously survey employees about their experiences, escalating the scrutiny of Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director.

Commissioner Dirk Rohne brought the motion to have a consultant survey staff, which was approved by a 3-2 vote. Frank Spence, the commission’s president, and Commissioner Bill Hunsinger voted with Rohne, while Commissioner Robert Stevens and Commissioner James Campbell opposed the motion.

Rohne called for an investigation and staff survey after Matt McGrath, the Port’s former director of operations, submitted a letter and observations describing Knight as dishonest, incompetent and incapable of running the agency. An ad-hoc finance committee also recently recommended an anonymous feedback loop for staff, including an annual survey.

Knight questioned the process for the survey, what questions would be asked of staff and how the results would be reported to the Port Commission.

“It’s a little fuzzy as to what’s the purpose of interviewing and asking the employees, my employees, questions about their employment with the Port,” he said.

Annual, confidential surveys are a best management practice used by local governments, Spence said.

“This is for employees to give confidential feedback on their day-to-day operations,” Spence said. “It’s a number of questions (about) their workplace, the relationships, and it is kept confidential with the employee so they can give an unfettered opinion of their work environment.”

Whether the survey results could be kept confidential was a sticking point for Stevens. The retired Coast Guard captain said his experience with such surveys in the military made him worried the results, like the comments by McGrath, would not remain confidential and could be disclosed to the media or others outside the Port.

“It’s real hard to keep it confidential,” he said. “Of course people talk to one another. And there is always a chance for people who have a long-sought-after vendetta after their supervisor or after their boss will also come to light.”

Eileen Eakins, the Port’s attorney, said a survey of employees is part of the Port Commission’s ability to evaluate the executive director. She would work with a consultant and Spence to develop the survey.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure that this is a confidential process,” she said. “And for those who are inclined to share it with The Daily Astorian, or state legislators or anyone else that they feel necessary to see it, the way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to not distribute a paper copy.”

The survey results should be discussed privately in executive session, after which the Port Commission can decide how to use the results in their evaluation of Knight, she said.

“At some point, the commission may decide they want to disclose it, but that’s going to be your call,” Eakins said. “If it’s in my possession, I cannot disclose it unless it’s subpoenaed by a court.”

The Port denied a public records request by The Astorian for McGrath’s letter and comments, which by that point had gone to Port commissioners, state agencies and legislators. The Clatsop County District Attorney’s Office later ordered the documents released after a closed session allowing Knight to respond to McGrath’s allegations.

Knight has since deferred his response until July, Spence said. The newspaper obtained copies of McGrath’s observations from a confidential source.

Stevens claimed the process of reviewing Knight’s performance had been corrupted by the disclosure of McGrath’s observations. Rohne claimed the review has nothing to do with the disclosure, which Stevens disputed.

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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