The Port of Astoria burned through five executive directors since 2012.
Will Isom wasn’t sure he wanted to be the sixth.
As the Port’s finance director for the past three years, Isom concentrated on clean audits while the relationship between Jim Knight and the Port Commission disintegrated. He was appointed interim director after Knight resigned in June and earned the permanent job in early December.
“I think there’s a microscope, kind of, on that job,” he said. “It’s very public.”
Aware of the turnover and the Port Commission’s reputation for volatility, Isom is negotiating for a longer-term contract with incentives for positive performance reviews.
Before the Port, Isom had stints in finance at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria and the Georgia-Pacific Wauna Mill. He also coached basketball at Knappa High School, his alma mater.
Isom talked about the challenges at the Port — and how the agency could rebuild public trust — in an interview.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Port?
A: Ultimately the job of the Port is to manage certain public assets in a way that creates economic growth and jobs.
I think over a long period of time now the revenue that the Port generates has been inadequate to properly maintain and reinvest into those assets. You can see the symptoms of this everywhere. We have low cash reserves. We have high debt loads. We have crumbling infrastructure.
So I think the real challenge going forward is to figure out how to fix this financial shortfall. And I don’t think it’s just one answer. I think there’s a number of things. We have to be able to improve our operating margin on an annual basis, and so we need to find a way, not only to cut costs, but to increase those operating revenues.
We also need to be looking for outside sources, through help from the state, through grant programs. And so I think there’s a whole spectrum of avenues that we could possibly use to address these issues.
But I think a lot of what has troubled the Port really comes down to money. And so that’s something we have to solve.
Q: We’ve had several executive directors over the past decade. Why the turnover, you think?
A: I do want to be careful in sort of speaking for past directors or those commissions. Each situation could have had a unique set of circumstances and I may not know all of those details.
I do think that, as a general statement for such a small port, the Port of Astoria has a wide range of stakeholders. Many of those stakeholders rely either completely, or at least partially, on the Port for their livelihood.
So because of this I think there is sort of added scrutiny on any decision the Port makes. I think this makes it vital for the Port director to be really open and transparent and make sure that the decisions that get made are fully contemplated.
Q: You’re a Knappa guy. What is the value of having someone with local ties in a leadership role at the Port?
A: I don’t think having local ties should, obviously, be the most important factor in hiring a director.
I do think, however, that it could be in the best interest of the public to have some long-term stability with this position moving forward. I would say there’s probably some correlation between having local ties and the likelihood that I would be in this role for a longer period of time.
Like I said, my wife and I are both local, plan to be in the area for a long time. So, for me, this isn’t some sort of a stepping stone type job to a bigger port or something like that.
Q: In an interview after your appointment with the Columbia Press, you said the Port has at times sacrificed long-term health for short-term gain. What’s an example of that?
A: Conceptually, the Port ultimately is run by an elected board. And, as such, that can change every two years, through each special election.
I do think there is some pressure — and rightfully so — as a commission and thereby on the Port manager to really look at that short-term time horizon and make sure that we’re having some short-term successes.
Over a long period of time, I think the biggest sort of evidence of some of that decision-making does have to do with the deferred maintenance issues that we’re facing. Because deferred maintenance tends to be something that — it’s not something sexy, you’re not going to get a lot of applause for investing money into things that maybe should have been fixed a long time ago.
Another good example has to do with our AOC4 (Area of Concern 4) contamination issue down on the central waterfront. This is one that has drug on now for close to 20 years, but in order to really close the loop on this and get a resolution, it will ultimately cost the Port some money. And it’s a project that isn’t going to bring in more revenue for the Port. It’s not going to be something that people can really see and then go, “Oh, there’s where that money went.”
Those are just some examples of things that have been sort of lingering out there, but because, in the short term, there may not be as much benefit, maybe those things have been pushed off. Or the priority hasn’t been to really invest into those type of things.
Q: The new strategic plan talks about repairing public trust. How do you do that?
A: My job as the Port director is to manage the Port in a way that serves the best long-term interest of the public.
I realize that not every decision the Port makes everyone is going to love, and I think that’s OK. I think as long as we’re transparent, we’re informed and we maintain working relationships despite maybe not agreeing on every issue, then I think the Port’s doing its job.
And I guess my hope going forward is that increased public trust would be a byproduct to that management style.
Q: How are you going define success? How do we know that it’s working?
A: I don’t really have some big profound statement, I guess, about what it means to be successful.
I do think it’s important for any organization, or even individual, to have goals. It’s important as you accomplish things to keep setting the bar higher and creating new goals.
I guess, from that standpoint, I personally have never really felt like I was a success. I don’t really think of it in those terms.
In some ways — I don’t know if this is the right answer — but I think almost being afraid to fail is what motivates me more than striving for some kind of abstract definition of success.
I know in sports they often say that the agony of defeat is greater than the thrill of victory, and I think there’s some truth to that. I would say that my motivation is really that fear of failure, and kind of running from that.