SEASIDE — Port of Astoria Commissioner Bill Hunsinger touted his experience and criticism of what he sees as ineffective Port management at a candidate forum on Saturday, while Scott McClaine, his challenger in the May election, stressed he would bring fresh eyes.
The two are running for a four-year term in Position 3 on the Port Commission. Commissioner Robert Stevens, a retired Coast Guard captain, is running unopposed for Position 4.
Hunsinger, a commercial fisherman and former longshoreman, has been on the Port Commission for 12 years. McClaine, the owner of an online coin shop and aCoast Guard veteran, recently quit his job as a security guard at the Port to campaign against Hunsinger.
The Port is in dire financial straits, with staff estimating more than $20 million in maintenance on decaying infrastructure and barely enough money to cover operating costs.
“I want to thank Commissioner Hunsinger for his 12 years of service to the Port. It’s seen both good and bad,” McClaine said at the forum, which was held at the Bob Chisholm Community Center and sponsored by Clatsop County Democrats. “But I want to say that I think I bring a set of fresh eyes to the Port. I’ve been known for thinking outside the box.”
Hunsinger pointed to his experience with the Port, along with the fishing and shipping industries, as giving him credibility. He has been the biggest critic of Port management and has said Port Executive Director Jim Knight should resign or be fired.
“I’ve seen the Port at its very best, and I’ve seen the Port go a different direction,” he said. “The reason I’m running again is I’d like to turn things around.”
A volunteer committee of financial professionals has recommended a more proactive Port management and the sale of multiple properties to help fix decaying docks and keep the agency solvent.
Hunsinger at first said he is totally opposed to selling public property to make up for managerial mistakes. But he later stated his willingness to sell the Astoria Regional Airport, which loses money operationally but brings in the vast majority of the Port’s federal grants.
McClaine said the Port needs to study the finance committee’s recommendations. Selling buildings, but not the land underneath, could be a good option, he said.
The Port recently shut down a causeway over the East Mooring Basin after an inspection by state engineers found a significantly rotted substructure, leaving several boat owners without access to their vessels. Asked how they would balance safety with servicing customers, Hunsinger said the Port needs a more experienced grant writer to seek government support.
The Port Commission has long been beset by squabbling, much of it related to Hunsinger’s constant criticism of the agency’s staff and Knight. Asked about making commission meetings more cordial, Hunsinger started with a laugh in recognition of his self-appointed position as a whistleblower.
“You all know I am,” he said. “I don’t like watching public dollars be spent recklessly, throwing money away. And that’s what they do.”
The Port Commission should resemble a family, McClaine said, with unity in public and disagreements hashed out privately.
“Live debate is not good,” he said.
The Port’s largest source of revenue is from charges to log ships exporting timber for Astoria Forest Products, a business nearly halted by tariffs amid a trade war between the U.S. and China. McClaine credited Hunsinger’s role in attracting a log exporter to Astoria, but recommended the Port look beyond logs.
Hunsinger said the Port needs to do a better job marketing itself and take advantage of the potential for shipping cargo by barge on the Columbia River.
He recounted the Port of Grays Harbor in Aberdeen, Washington, which was similarly dependent on wood products but diversified into agricultural, liquid and auto exports, attracting more than $200 million in private investment. In 2011, Grays Harbor was named by state officials as the Washington Port of the Year.
“Aberdeen was in worse shape than we were by far,” Hunsinger said. “And what did they do to change that? They marketed their port. They marketed worldwide.”