The Port of Astoria has signed a new professional services agreement with Bruce Conner, the agency’s cruise ship marketer, after he faced ethics violations with the state over allegations he used the position to benefit his company, Sundial Travel.
Conner is largely credited with turning Astoria into a cruise ship destination over the past decade. While marketing Astoria to cruise lines, Conner also has exclusive agreements to sell passengers shore excursions on board the vessels. Newer, smaller tour providers like Lori Beth Kulp, of Lor’s Tours, and Bob Vinatieri, of Astoria Tours, have called foul.
Kulp filed complaints with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The commission concluded that Conner took “official actions such as posting descriptions of his company’s shore excursions on the Port of Astoria’s website and communicating with cruise line shore excursion managers to gain support for a Port of Astoria policy that had the effect of prohibiting other tour operators from competing.”
The Ethics Commission charged Conner with seven violations of public disclosure law: one for the improper use of confidential information, three for using his official position for financial gain and three for not disclosing conflicts of interest.
Conner faced up to $5,000 per violation, but settled with the state and paid $3,500 overall, based on the seriousness, length and monetary value associated with the violations.
The new professional services agreement with Conner, the first since 2014, pays him $2,100 a month and reimburses his expenses related to marketing for the Port. It lasts a year and will extend automatically in six-month periods unless either party provides 30-day’s notice.
The agreement specifies that Conner “shall not directly promote or market any specific company, person, or business in which contractor or any relative of contractor has a personal financial interest.”
Matt McGrath, the director of operations at the Port, said Conner has been communicating by email every time he has a potential conflict of interest.
Commissioner Scott McClaine raised concerns over the open-ended nature of the agreement and Conner’s dual role with the Port and his company.
“It is my thought that this position might be better served by someone not as closely tied in with the Port as Mr. Conner,” he said. “It looks to me like someone with a master’s degree in business or that’s in Portland or Seattle or St. Paul (Minnesota) could do this effectively, and not have any potential conflicts. That way you can treat everybody fairly … versus even having the appearance of impropriety, of any favoritism.”
McClaine wanted periodic reviews of the Port’s relationship with Conner and any potential conflicts of interest. The Port is trying to keep the contract low-maintenance, allowing the agency to let Conner go with a month’s notice whenever it needs to go in a different direction, McGrath said.
“It’s just meant to be able to keep him operating as the marketer until the Port decides to go in a different direction,” he said.
Conner holds a similar cruise ship marketing position with the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, Eureka and Humboldt County in Northern California. He is the vice president for Cruise the West, a marketing association for nine West Coast ports, including Astoria and Humboldt Bay.
McClaine questioned whether Conner is solely marketing the Port when he goes to cruise line conferences. If not, the Port should cost-share his trips with the other organizations he might be marketing, he said.
Conner represents all Cruise the West ports at cruise line conferences, McGrath said.
Commissioner Frank Spence, a member of Clatsop Cruise Hosts and a champion for the economic impact of visiting cruise ships, bristled at McClaine’s line of questioning.
“You’re into presumptions and assumptions,” Spence said. “And the two words that get people in trouble the most is ‘presume’ and ‘assume.’”
The Ethics Commission has addressed concerns with Conner, Spence said.
“The proof of the pudding in his efforts is the fact that next year we will have a record 33 cruise ships coming in here,” he said. “This represents millions of dollars — not only to the Port, (but) to the county, to the state of Oregon.”
Dirk Rohne, the president of the Port Commission, said the new operating agreement is the answer to address the issues that have been raised about Conner.
The Port Commission unanimously approved the new agreement.
Conner could not immediately be reached for comment.