A shake-up in the Port of Astoria's board of commissioners has critics looking hopefully toward the future.
With retired longshoreman Bill Hunsinger replacing commissioner Jim Bergeron and Astoria writer Kathy Sanders claiming the seat of commission president Don McDaniel, Bernie Bjork is the only incumbent candidate left standing after Tuesday's election.
Final unofficial results show Bjork keeping his Position 2 seat with 4,015 votes (54 percent), beating challengers Patrick McGee, who had 2,493 votes (33 percent), and John Dunzer with 828 votes (11 percent).
In the Port's closest election, Hunsinger earned 4,627 votes (56 percent) to Bergeron's 3,428 (42 percent) to grab Position 3. In Position 4, Sanders took 3,508 votes (47 percent) over McDaniel's 1,670 (23 percent), Jim Stroup's 1,398 votes (19 percent) and Ted Thomas' 645 votes (8 percent).
In many ways the election was a referendum on how the existing board handled the supervision and subsequent firing of Executive Director Peter Gearin.
"I'm just ecstatic - amazed, still in shock," Sanders said Tuesday night. "I thought I had a good chance, but this definitely has exceeded my expectations. I think the first six months will be a very hard learning curve. Fortunately I do have the time to devote to learning the various aspects of the Port and its business."
A former U.S. Air Force captain, Sanders said she grew up with five brothers and she's ready to work with the new board of commissioners. In recent years, she said, the Port commission "made a lot of poor decisions and trusted former executive director Peter Gearin way too much." She is hoping the new commission can be "in the driver's seat."
McDaniel could not be reached for comment Tuesday night or this morning. During his re-election campaign, McDaniel, who served on the commission for eight years, said he saw a need for "continuity" in Port leadership. The Port made positive strides during his tenure, he said, reducing property taxes to the agency and attracting millions in state dollars for economic development. He said he's not sure the commissioners could have managed the Port any better than they did, but perhaps some of the commission's decisions could have been "a little bit more deliberative."
"The voters felt it was time for a change," said Hunsinger, a vocal Port critic who has made himself a fixture at commission meetings. "I'm real happy for Kathy Sanders. She was virtually unknown coming into this race. She's very intelligent, and I think she'll do a darn good job. I'm real happy to work with her, of course."
Hunsinger said the new Port commissioners now have "to roll up our sleeves and go to work. I made some promises to the voters, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to keep those promises."
Among the items that need to be addressed, Hunsinger listed docks that need to be repaired and finding money to solve problems with dredging. He also pledged to "get rid of the three-minute egg timer" for public comments at commission meetings because "we need public input."
Hunsinger said Bergeron has "a great fisheries background," but was slow in "stepping up and taking leadership" on the board. "There's no doubt that I'll be more aggressive, and I'll research things."
Anticipating a change in the board of commissioners Tuesday night, Bergeron said "my fear is that the commission won't get along, and things will go back to the way they were before I got on there, when all they did was fight, and it took three Port meetings to get anything done. I hope that doesn't happen."
Hunsinger said: "I know Kathy (Sanders) and myself and Larry (Pfund) can work together. Can the whole board work together? Yes. We have to. We have problems that need to be resolved."
After eight years on the commission, Bergeron said the Port has seen "some tremendous development," and he'd like to see good work continue. He's also looking forward to some time away from the statewide meetings - for dredging issues, salmon recovery and coast management, among others - associated with being a commissioner.
"It hurts a little bit to lose, but it's also a great relief," said Bergeron. "There were a lot of things going on at the Port that you don't see ... I'll have a lot more time to myself."
The incumbent commission candidates were criticized for their role in the mismanagement of the Port, for keeping information from the public and supporting controversial economic development such as liquefied natural gas.
Bjork, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday night or this morning, will be taking over the two-year unexpired term of Commissioner Glenn Taggart. After Taggart resigned in September, Bjork was appointed to fill the Position 2 seat until the election.
A retired commercial fisherman and landlord who lives in Astoria, Bjork said he has a lot of experience with ports up and down the West Coast. He would like to see the Port of Astoria "going in the direction it has" and following the "cluster concept" of building several businesses around one industry, such as fishing and marine services. He supports LNG, and he credits the work of former Gearin, former Deputy Director Bill Cook and incumbent candidates McDaniel and Bergeron for making the Port a success.
"The cluster concept works," said Bjork. "All you have to do is take a drive down by the Port to see that it's working."
McGee, a building designer in Astoria, took issue with Bjork's platform, arguing the Port is in "serious trouble" and needs new leadership. He also disagreed with Bjork's opinion that the Port should stop trying to attract cargo.
Anticipating Bjork's victory Tuesday night, McGee said he believes the Port is still in "terrible shape."
"I can only wish Bernie (Bjork) the best of luck - he's going to need every bit of it," said McGee. "He and that Port commission, they've got a huge job in front of them to try to turn things around."
With two new commissioners on the board, McGee said he sees "some very positive things" coming out of the election, but "everybody's going to have to hit the ground running."
The new commissioners will take office on the first scheduled meeting in July.