The Port of Astoria Commission could fire Jim Knight, the agency’s embattled executive director, after a majority lost confidence in his leadership.
After a private executive session Tuesday afternoon, each commissioner publicly shared their opinion of Knight in front of a packed room. Frank Spence, the commission’s president, and Commissioner Bill Hunsinger and Commissioner Dirk Rohne voiced support for removing Knight.
Commissioner Robert Stevens called the move rushed and possibly corrupt, while Commissioner James Campbell said the public had only heard one side of the story about the director’s performance.
“From the local financial advisory committee to the outside consultant who prepared the Port of Astoria’s strategic plan, we have an abundance of evidence of the failures of Jim Knight to effectively lead the Port of Astoria,” Rohne said. “While Jim Knight may not have caused all the Port’s problems, he is certainly not the Port director who can move it forward.”
Knight hired Kyle Busse, an employment attorney, who advised Port attorney Eileen Eakins over the phone that he and Knight would prefer to not respond off the cuff at the meeting.
Knight, who could not be reached for comment, will likely respond at the Port Commission’s next regular meeting on June 18.
The special session follows a 3-2 vote earlier this month to anonymously survey employees about their experience at the Port. Rohne called for the survey based on the recommendation from an ad-hoc committee of financial and economic development professionals, he said.
The call for a survey also came shortly after the release of comments by Matt McGrath, the Port’s former director of operations who resigned in April, detailing Knight as incompetent, dishonest and incapable of running the agency.
Knight faces criticism over several alleged missteps during his tenure. A jury in a lawsuit the Port lost over the operation of the Astoria Riverwalk Inn found Knight made fraudulent statements to a suitor for the hotel, while a judge found his testimony “not particularly credible.”
Current and former tenants, such as Life Flight Network and Kiwi’s Water Taxi, have complained about Knight’s conduct and honesty. Greg Morrill, of Bergerson Construction, one of the Port’s longest-tenured customers, said Knight had pressured him to move off of leased land on Pier 3 to make more room for the operations of Astoria Forest Products.
Knight turned away a $1.5 million state infrastructure grant without telling the Port Commission after the agency unsuccessfully attempted to secure federal storm damage money for the $660,000 local match.
He once claimed tenants would pay for half of a new $2 million stormwater treatment system on Pier 3, but has so far failed to lay out a cost-sharing plan.
Hunsinger, a longtime critic of Knight, ran through a litany of alleged mistakes and violations of Port policy and ethics by the director. He has acted as a whistleblower on the Port Commission, making public Knight’s return of the state grant, along with a previously undisclosed letter from the state Department of Transportation recommending closure of the east side of Pier 2 because of a rotting substructure.
“What else has he done? What jobs have been created here? There are no jobs created, No. 1,” Hunsinger said. “There are no projects finished.”
Stevens claimed many of Hunsinger’s arguments against Knight are based on misinformation, and that while not everything the director did came to fruition, he keeps trying to advance the Port. He claimed Port commissioners are rushing to a decision on Knight because Hunsinger was defeated in May’s election by challenger Scott McClaine and will be replaced next month.
The Port needs to look at the financial costs of separating from Knight and replacing him, Stevens said.
“If we go about this half-baked and we rush through it … we’re going to see an inevitable lawsuit,” Stevens said. “All these financial factors could cost the Port into the millions. How in the world does this improve the Port financially?”
Campbell said Knight should have a chance to respond and, without mentioning him by name, cast doubt on McGrath’s credibility.
“I think everybody would be surprised at what an investigation of his background would bring,” Campbell said of McGrath.
Spence, who previously backed Knight, said his opinion of Knight relied on the report by the ad-hoc finance committee and feedback from Port tenants and other locals.
“They feel that the Port is at a crossroads, and that we cannot continue to go down that path that we have been going, which has not produced positive, constructive results,” Spence said. “Therefore, I think and believe that based upon the people — local community and business people — that we do need a change in director.”
Knight’s contract, including extension options, runs through 2022.
Spence, Stevens and Campbell voted to extend Knight’s contract shortly after a verdict against the Port in the Riverwalk Inn case, giving him a pay package of more than $200,000, including benefits. Rohne and Hunsinger, who have previously given Knight a lackluster performance review, opposed the extension.