For two decades, in fair weather or foul, tiny vessels operated by Anchorage Launch Services chugged out from their Astoria waterfront moorings to service the giant ships that sail across the Columbia River bar and seek refuge on the south bank.

A phone call changed everything.

It came from the Port of Astoria. And it had the effect of a pink slip:?Anchorage’s line-handling services were no longer required

The business was being switched by the Port of Astoria to the Nisqually Tribe, which operates a federal surplus vessel called the Hickson from Pier 39.

The switch came about thanks to Port Commissioner Floyd Holcom, who had contacted the tribe and suggested its members could benefit from the business.

Observers say that the Hickson saga reflects the dark side of the Port of Astoria in 2011. Leaders meet in public twice a month with a reporter present, pay the bills, happily announce new business prospects and dream of brighter days.

The Hickson story presents the other way the Port does business:?under the radar and with little to no paper trail.

Few records on paper

In researching this story – the talk of the waterfront – The Daily Astorian filed two public record requests.

Based on the few written records, and interviews with the players, here’s what happened.

In April, the Port called Anchorage – less than 48 hours before its crews were to service a cruise ship – and told owner Mary Shaver in Portland that their services were no longer required.

Port Director Jack Crider contends that vessel agents had been complaining for years about Anchorage’s high fees and the coordination and double invoicing that was necessary from both the Port and Anchorage.

For the record, Anchorage charges $300 an hour with a three-hour minimum ($900). The Daily Astorian’s investigation reveals fees charged by the company and the Nisqually Tribe are essentially the same. In other words, the Port achieved no savings for its cruise ship customers.

Also, the Port has started moving forward to actively control vendors that operate on or around Port property to “ensure liability insurance and activities on Port property,” Crider said.

Anchorage, Crider said, has been running independent of Port oversight, working directly with vessel agents. Until the Hickson showed up in Astoria, the Port had no other option other than to work with Anchorage and its vessel.

Tribe gains vessel

The 65-foot Hickson is a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey boat that was declared federal surplus property.

Tom Towslee, the state communications director with the office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden explained that when items like this are declared surplus, other federal agencies have first dibs on buying them. Native American tribes are next in line.

Up stepped the Nisqually Tribe, whose reservation is located in Thurston County, Wash., near Olympia, Wash., and along the Nisqually River. It already has a number of barges and work boats in the Puget Sound.

The tribe plans to retro-fit the Hickson with a commercial diving system and articulated crane to use the boat for marine survey work, dive training and marine restoration.

The tribe had expected the Hickson to sit at Pier 39 in Astoria for a while. It was en route from Portland to the Puget Sound area, but stopped in Astoria.

The boat needed a job while it was waiting to travel to its new home at the West Bay Marina in Olympia.

Line handling wouldn’t have been the tribe’s first choice for work, but the Hickson “was just sitting there and not doing anything,” said Dennis Lucia, general manager of Nisqually Aquatic Technologies.

Holcom, the Port commissioner who owns Pier 39, mentioned that the Port might be able to use the Hickson for line handling, according to an email Lucia wrote to Crider in April.

“We’re interested in any and all opportunities to put her to work in Astoria,” Lucia wrote.

Ouch

But what was good for one operation was bad for another. Shaver, owner of Anchorage Launch Services, felt cut out. Anchorage had provided line services to cruise ships stopping in Astoria for years. She worked directly with vessel agents, she said. Never the Port.

But then came the phone call from Port personnel that informed her Anchorage was no longer needed: The work was going to someone else.

When she learned that the fees she charged were at issue, she was upset, saying she was never given the chance to adjust her rates or understand what was happening and why.

The Port’s Crider is not able to provide any written records of complaints about fees charged by Anchorage.

In Shaver’s opinion, it’s no way to do business and no way to treat a long-time customer. Anchorage has leased space at the East Mooring Basin in Astoria for more than 20 years.

“If the process is fair, that’s one thing,” Shaver said. “This isn’t fair. Why should I support the Port?”

She added that she is not so much concerned about the loss of the work. Her company is involved in many other operations. Instead, she is primarily concerned with how the change was handled, she said.

Crider said Shaver has not been in contact with the Port since the change of services.

“If she is truly interested in providing the service, she can come and talk to me,” he said. “(Shaver) chose to take it to the media instead.”

The line handling job did not go out to bid – something Shaver finds disturbing.

The job didn’t need to go out to bid, Crider said. However, in the future, it could be put out to bid, he added. He did not explain why.

A spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice confirmed that public agencies have some flexibility in awarding business if only small amounts of money are involved.

Captain benefits

The work has been a boon to the boat’s captain.

When the Nisqually Tribe purchased the Hickson last year, they didn’t have a licensed operator to transport it. They hired Alan Brann to go to Portland and bring the boat to Astoria.

Then the line handling opportunity came up and the tribe approached Brann again.

Brann, originally from New Zealand, has operated Kiwi’s Water Taxi since December 2010. He moors his vessel at Holcom’s Pier 39. When cargo ships are anchored in the Columbia River, Brann goes out in his boat to deliver food or bring crew members ashore and take them shopping – basically whatever they need, he said.

“The business is doing all right, but it doesn’t pay very well,” he said. “That’s where the Hickson comes in really great.”

The work helps him supplement what he makes through his taxi service.

‘Against ethical standards’

Holcom has about 25 tenants at Pier 39, but says his only relationship with them is as a landlord. After The Daily Astorian filed a public records request with the Port’s professional managers indicating interest in the Hickson, Holcom fired off an 11-paragraph email to the newspaper saying he received no commissions and made no recommendations to the Port on who should get business.

“Any hint or accusation ... contrary to this policy is purely unfounded and against my ethical standards,” he wrote.

In his first contact with Crider at the Port, Lucia, the tribal aquatic manager, wrote:?“Floyd advised me that the Hickson might be put to use for line handling.”

Crider confirmed to The Daily Astorian, in response to a second public records request from the newspaper, that the “Floyd” to whom the tribe’s Lucia referred was commissioner Holcom. But Crider added that he himself made the decision to contract services with the Nisqually Tribe. The fee was $450 an hour with a two-hour minimum ($900).

One part of the puzzle

As for the tribe, the Hickson is just another building block in the tribe’s economic development, Lucia said, and the line handling (as well as any other work that might come the Hickson’s way) will help build the boat’s resumé as a commercial vessel when it moves to Washington.

“We have no really grand design … to create a huge corporation down there (in Astoria),” Lucia said.

“If there was an opportunity to have a huge pile removal project, we would do that over line handling,” Lucia said. Line handling is intermittent work and doesn’t generate a whole lot of money, just enough to pay for the boat’s crew, moorage and upkeep, he said.

Daily Astorian reporters and editors contributed to this story.

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