One of the bright spots at the Port of Astoria over the past decade is the emergence of cruise ships.
Cruise ships have stopped in Astoria since the early 1980s, but, over the past several years, the port of call has become an attraction for leisure travel in the Puget Sound, Alaska and Vancouver, British Columbia, markets. Up to 35 cruise ships with 75,000 passengers could arrive this year, a schedule weighted toward the spring and fall shoulder seasons for tourism on the North Coast.
While some local retailers question the economic value and complain passengers are not typically big spenders, the Port has correctly identified cruise ships as an opportunity. The Port’s strategic plan discusses the need for dock and other infrastructure improvements to keep pace with the cruise ship industry’s trend toward larger ships that carry more passengers.
Bruce Conner, the Port’s cruise ship marketer, deserves credit for his work in building this business. He is also the cruise ship marketer for Humboldt Bay in California and has a leadership role with Cruise the West, a partnership that promotes travel to several West Coast ports.
But Conner also operates Sundial Travel in Astoria, so he has had a private financial interest in growing Astoria as a cruise ship destination. His travel company offers shoreside excursions to passengers that are booked from the cruise lines.
The Port should have long ago recognized this conflict of interest.
Instead, rival tour operators forced the Port’s hand by calling attention to what appeared to be Conner’s preferential treatment.
Lori Beth Kulp, of Lor’s Tours, complained to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. After reviewing the situation, the Ethics Commission determined that Conner kept his public and private interests separate and voted in 2018 to dismiss Kulp’s complaint.
Last year, after a complaint from Kulp’s attorney, the Ethics Commission took another look. An investigation found that Conner used his official position with the Port to support his travel company and failed to properly disclose the conflict of interest. He 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.”
Conner eventually settled and paid a $3,500 penalty.
We don’t know why it took other tour operators and an ethics investigation for the Port to figure this out. At one point, Jim Knight, the Port’s former executive director, even said the agency’s policy regarding tour operators — which obviously favored Conner — was driven by the cruise lines. “One of the reasons we’ve been so successful with cruise ships is making sure tours are sold on board,” Knight said in 2018. “This is how cruise companies make money.”
The ethics investigation turned up an email from Port counsel Eileen Eakins to Knight recommending the Port consider terminating Conner’s marketing contract. She wrote that Conner “is not only being paid by the Port, but the work he is doing for the Port will have the direct effect of increasing tour sales for his company.”
Fortunately, the Port’s new leadership appears to grasp the problem.
Last year, the Port reached a new professional services agreement with Conner that specifies he “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.”
In January, the Port detailed a new lease with Conner as cruise ship marketer that separates him from Clatsop Cruise Hosts, the volunteers who welcome cruise ship passengers.
Will Isom, the Port’s executive director, chose to announce the new lease publicly at a Port Commission meeting. “This is not something, per our bylaws, that would need to go in front of the commission or would need approval,” he 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.”
We hope other local government agencies learn from the Port’s mistakes and take steps to avoid potential conflicts of interest before they become too obvious to ignore.