The Port of Astoria Commission has adopted a new lease decoupling Bruce Conner, the agency’s cruise ship marketer and owner of a private tour company, from the volunteer group Clatsop Cruise Hosts.
Will Isom, the Port’s executive director, on Tuesday presented the new contract, which he said was negotiated by Sue Transue, the agency’s director of terminal and commercial services.
“This is not something, per our bylaws, that would need to go in front of the commission or would need approval,” Isom said. “I did think it was important from a transparency standpoint based on the recent ethics investigation and things like that that have gone on, that we did make this public.”
Conner, who has agreements with cruise lines to market shoreside excursions on ships through his company, Sundial Travel, was recently fined by the state Ethics Commission for improper use of confidential information, using his official position with the Port for financial gain and not disclosing conflicts of interest.
The new, month-to-month lease with Conner charges him $345 a month for the corner office he leases on the ground floor of the Taggart Building. He also shared rent of another space at a below-market rate with Clatsop Cruise Hosts, who help guide visiting cruise ship passengers at the docks and in downtown Astoria. The new lease separates Conner’s space from the cruise hosts’.
The Port Commission recently approved a new professional services agreement codifying its relationship with Conner, who holds similar cruise ship marketing roles in Astoria and Eureka, California. He is also the vice president for Cruise the West, a marketing association for nine West Coast ports, including Astoria and Humboldt Bay.
“We need to make sure that we clearly delineate when he is acting as an agent of the Port, in terms of his professional services contract, versus as a tour operator with Sundial Travel,” Isom said. “Then also he has a relationship with the Clatsop Cruise Hosts.”
The Ethics Commission investigation started after Lori Beth Kulp, owner of Lor’s Tours, filed multiple complaints and sent a tort claim notice to the Port warning of possible legal action. She has called on the Port several times to replace Conner as cruise ship marketer because of conflicts of interest.
Kulp recently brought up her concerns at a town hall with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who deferred to state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, but reiterated his support for federal port infrastructure funding.
Port Commissioner Scott McClaine recently echoed Kulp’s concerns about Conner’s duel roles. On Tuesday, he questioned the economic impact of cruise ships and called for a separate survey of passengers and their spending with the help of Clatsop Community College.
“I’ve seen this number inflate, and I want raw statistics,” he said.
Commissioner Frank Spence, a Clatsop Cruise Host member who regularly touts the impact of cruise ships and Conner’s job bringing them to Astoria, said the group is ready to help with the survey.
“Whatever figure it is, it’s good, and it’s going to get better next year with a record number of ships coming in,” Spence said of the 33 ships scheduled to dock in Astoria this year.