Fear Of Litigation Led to Port of Port Angeles Job Shuffle, Commissioner Says

By Paul Gottlieb, June 27, 2013, Peninsula Daily News

A fear of potential litigation led to the Port of Port Angeles commissioners’ approval Monday of a one-year contract for former Executive Director Jeff Robb after he resigned, Port Commissioner John Calhoun said Thursday.

Robb was hired immediately after he quit.

Robb’s new job pays the same $138,000 he made as top administrator, but it has fewer responsibilities.

Robb, 59, announced at Monday’s commissioners’ meeting that he was resigning as executive director for “serious health issues” and will retire in July 2014.

Those issues are related to stress, said his wife, Laura.

Following Robb’s statement, commissioners discarded his three-year contract and voted 2-1 to hire him for the unadvertised, unbudgeted position of environmental affairs director — for the same salary he has received since January as executive director.

Calhoun, who along with Commissioner Paul McHugh voted for the contract, said Thursday the “dysfunctional” relationship between Robb and some members of the port’s senior staff had deteriorated to the point that it could have resulted in litigation “from either party involved in these conflicts” had it been allowed to continue.

“To avoid that, we settled on this course of action,” Calhoun said. “The salary was part of all the other elements of the settlement.

“Nobody threatened us with litigation,” he said.

Robb is on leave until July 8.

He did not return calls Thursday for comment on his new contract and the potential for litigation before it was approved.

Port lawyer Dave Neupert has not returned calls for comment about the contract.

Commissioners expect to pay the Seattle-based executive-search firm Waldron between $30,000 and $50,000 to produce candidates for interim executive director and permanent executive director, with an interim director hopefully named at the commissioners’ regular meeting July 8, Calhoun said.

Until an interim director is hired, expenditures over $5,000 must be approved by the commissioners instead of an executive director.

So the commissioners must hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. today to approve renewal of the port’s property insurance premium and consider suspending a $2 million state Department of Ecology grant if funding is disrupted by the lack of a 2013-1014 state budget.

The grant will resume once a budget is passed, Port Finance Director Karen Goschen said Thursday.

The meeting is in the port administrative office building, 338 W. First St.

There is no scheduled public comment period on the agenda.

The move hiring Robb for a lower-level position at the same executive director’s salary was criticized at Monday’s meeting by commission President Jim Hallett, who cast the lone dissenting vote, and speakers in the packed board meeting room who decried the contract as “a sweetheart deal” designed to allow Robb to get full state retirement benefits.

Robb is one year away from retirement and from qualifying for state retirement benefits.

The environmental director position was never advertised or posted, in contrast to what the port employee handbook states is “normally” done with position openings.

And there was no official port job description when Robb said in his statement Monday that he and commissioners had “agreed” that he would take the environmental affairs director position.

Hallett disputed the assertion there was an agreement.

He did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Robb’s salary as environmental affairs director is 64 percent higher than the salary paid to Goschen, who now has the next-highest director’s salary at the port.

“This situation was not all the executive director’s fault, and I didn’t think he should be punished with a reduction in salary as a result of this,” Calhoun said.

“He was being removed from the executive director position, and that was damaging enough,” he added.

“When we signed the contract, we set the salary,” Calhoun said.

“We were careful to do it according to the rules.”

Robb informed the commissioners June 19 at a special board meeting at which an executive session was held to discuss his job performance that “he didn’t think he could continue,” Calhoun said.

McHugh agreed that though there was no threat of legal action, litigation would have been possible if Robb had remained at his position.

“There was that potential,” he said.

He also defended giving Robb the same salary he received as executive director.

Robb’s involvement in ongoing port environmental cleanup projects “simply can’t be replaced by a consultant,” McHugh said.

“The port is truly getting value.”

Robb began working for the port in 1984 and was the manager of port aviation and marinas when he was hired in August 2009 as executive director, a position in which his salary increased by 20 percent over three years to $138,000.

McHugh left no doubt that he would not support hiring from within port staff for the interim or permanent executive director positions.

“I will not support anyone currently on our staff, absolutely not,” he said. “That will not help us to move forward.”

He said the new permanent executive director may make more than Robb.

“The new executive in almost all cases comes in at a higher level than the one that left,” McHugh said.

The salaries for the interim and new executive directors will be taken from the 2013 general operating budget, he said.

Those funds consist of income the port generates from operations, such as rent from tenants and other revenue.

“It’s not really public money,” McHugh said.

“The public’s money is the tax dollars we take in,” he said.

“People can choose to utilize port facilities or not.

“These are private individuals and businesses that would be paying the port to use facilities, or they would be paying someone else, so there is a difference.”

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