So you want to be a Port Commissioner?

The purpose of this explainer is is sort of a handy one-pager for candidates for a seat on the Port Commission. In the past two elections I’ve met with numerous candidates to discuss what the Port Commission might be able to do to help airport communities address the negative impacts from Sea-Tac Airport.

The answer. In one sentence

The flip answer is to the question is, “Great! When you get elected,  just manage the ports (small ‘p’) and stop fucking around with 1,000 other things.”

Because, if you think about it, the biggest problem airport communities have with the Port Of Seattle is that it’s not really a ‘Port’. It is ‘the economic engine of Puget Sound.’ If only the Port Commissioners restricted their activities to those of managing the safe and efficient conveyance of passengers and cargo, us residents under the flight paths would be doing fine.

We all spend tons of our lives trying to figure out ways around ANCA and to ‘mitigate’ the effects of the flights. One reason that the Port Commission candidates feel so inclined to exaggerate and lie about what they can do for us is because most people think of doing something as the way to cure a problem. ‘Fix it’, ‘Perform a surgery’, etc. And since there is so little they can legally do to help us, they tend to lie and we tend to want to believe them. That’s the ‘co-dependent relationship’ we’ve talked about so many times.

But we rarely stop to consider that, instead of asking the Port to do more it might be more helpful if they actually did a lot less. The biggest positive impacts the Port could have on our lives would be if the Port Commissioners would not do the following things.

Stop marketing and calling it ‘demand’

The Port’s biggest lie is that it says that it’s constant desire to expand capacity is in response to an organic demand for more flights from the public. That sentiment is in-built in everything they do, especially their Century Agenda. They can never have any credibility with the airport communities until they stop saying that. Now in private, when exasperated, Port Commissioners will say it bluntly, “We’re here to grow. That’s what we do. Happy now?” Yes. Because that’s the honest answer.

The airlines want to grow. Like any corporation, they work nights to figure out ways to increase demand. They don’t ‘respond’. They want people to fly. If the Port simply responded to true demand it would be an honest municipal corporation (like a Water District for example).

The Port is not a utility and neither are the airlines. They’re businesses. So they are constantly looking for the Port to help them sell more. Which means asking the Port to create more capacity. This is a bit like if the car companies could ask the state highway commission to widen the roads in order to encourage more people to buy cars.

Dear Candidate, if you want to help the airport communities, simply stop selling to the airlines. Say ‘no’ when the airlines ask for more capacity. And stop marketing to other airlines and freight carriers to place their hubs here. Again: manage the true current demand. Don’t try to offer more capacity in order to compete with other airports. Just stop selling capacity and let the ‘demand’ flow to another airport.

For example, just think how many fewer flights would be going over our heads every day if the Port hadn’t negotiated with Delta to put its hub here in 2012. Translate that into noise and tons of C02. ‘Not doing’ that would have had more positive effect on our environment than all the proposed legislative changes that may never happen.

Stop lobbying

Another way the Port Commission could significantly improve our lives is to tell their lobbying arm to stop pushing back against legislation designed to help airport communities. Again, this is not ‘doing’ something. It’s simply avoiding changes to the law that would treat us more fairly. Two quick examples:

When the Federal government started offering AIP Grants for sound insulation, the Port lobbying machine lost no time in getting a change to the  RCW 53.030 which created the infamous ‘one-time payment’ clause. This prevents homeowners with bad Port Packages from seeking relief from the Port. It also prevents them from requesting upgrades to their sound insulation–even though those upgrades are part of the Federal program and the Port would be reimbursed. The Port simply wanted to do the program as cheaply as possible. And this law makes for one of the cheapest (and unfair) programs of its type in the country.

And when referendum I-1631 was being drawn up in the State legislature two years ago, the Port lobbied to get an exemption on aviation and marine fuels. If they had not done so, the voters may have felt a bit better about voting for it.  As it ended up being written, those exemptions were so huge that it made the proposal’s benefits a lot harder to sell. But if the referendum had passed without those exemptions for aviation and marine fuels it would’ve driven up the price of airline travel just a little and thus provided at least some meaningful decrease in plane travel. And it would’ve done it without requiring any Federal intervention or fights with the community. Just good ol’ supply and demand.

So, Dear Candidate, all you have to do is ask your lobbyist to call in sick on certain key days to improve the lives of residents in practical and almost immediate ways. You don’t have to have curfew fights or go to court over flight routes or any of that complicated crap. These examples (and dozens of others) demonstrate that the Port isn’t simply managing the safe and efficient conveyance of passengers and cargo. It is attempting to maximize revenues for itself and the airlines at the expense of airport community residents. Stop doing that. Simple. 🙂

Stop being do-gooders

This is a toughie. The biggest obstacle to changing Port Commission behavior is that they have over a century of creating small ‘do-gooder’ projects. For example, community clean-ups (to counteract the environmental damage of the industries they enable), anti-poverty programs, job education and so on. These are all functions traditionally handled by conventional full-service governments, but because the Port (very cleverly) stepped in and started doing so many of them over the years, the entire region has become dependent.

Why it’s so bad when the Port tries to do good.

Why is this bad? Because it completely deflects attention from the damages  caused by the Port’s core businesses. In other words, they are public relation moves that prevent law makers from taking action on the egregious problems the Port’s businesses create. As one State Senator told me, “I can’t vote against the Port. They fund my women’s shelter!” (Who wants to be the guy who complains about a womens shelter, right?) And the Port has do-gooder projects literally everywhere in the State Of Washington; not just Puget Sound. To vote against the Port’s desires on any issue means possibly harming everything from playgrounds to salmon recovery to road projects to homeless shelters.

And let’s not forget that Port Commissioners come into office with hopes and dreams. No candidate comes into the race in order to manage the safe and efficient conveyance of passengers and cargo. They run for the office because they want to ‘do’ stuff that has nothing to do with simply making the ships and planes run on time. You all want to ‘make Puget Sound better’ in some way. And that right there is the core problem. Right from the beginning your attention is on ‘doing’ stuff which further expands the Port’s mission. Your aspirations to grow ‘something’ (insert here) are what makes it impossible for you to help the airport communities.

Stop trusting the corporation so much

You’re a board of directors. Your job is to provide oversight and that means not always taking the corporation’s word for granted.

So when your Noise Manager or Environmental Projects Manager brings you reports on all their efforts, be skeptical. In fact, after you talk with those people, pick up the phone and call a few people in the community and get the other side of the story.

Then decide on policy.

Make the community a true alternate voice in policy making. Probably the best way to enable this is another not-do.

Stop the stupid community engagement

The corollary of the not trusting so much is choosing the right type of community engagement. Recognize that groups like StART and the Highline Forum will never be efficient ways to determine policy priorities. Most of the people involved are not subject matter experts and so the suggestions they come up with are likely not the best. In fact, they aren’t even looking at the work that your Noise Manager and Environmental Managers are doing so they can’t provide a healthy push back.

The best way to engage with the communities is for us to hire a full-time advocate; a person who is expert on the issues and who you can effectively interact with directly. In other words, a lobbyist, in the best sense of that profession. Your role is to make yourself available and show your willingness to listen to someone who has the authority and skills to properly represent us.

Do become educated

OK, so this is also your second job. And you have no intention of becoming an airport noise and pollution expert. Fine. But have some proper respect. The airport provides 80% of your revenue and 100% of our grief. So at the very least, understand ANCA and the basics of what you can and cannot do to help us. Again, don’t take your people’s word as law. Ask us. We’ll tell you. That’s why the above advocate is so important: you need to feel like you’re hearing from someone every bit as credible as your own people in order to provide oversight and provide meaningful compromise with us on contentious issues.

It’s so sexy when you do nothing

The problem for any politician in ‘not doing’ is that it’s as sexy as a cardigan sweater. You get no credit for avoiding trouble. And there’s no photo-op for not doing something. That’s one reason it’s so hard to diet. There’s no reward in donut-avoidance. But there is a big (if ultimately negative) reward for donut-engagement!

This is especially so with regard to do-gooder activities. They are so helpful to their tiny constituencies (who are super-grateful) and they are so media-friendly that they are almost as irresistible as a cream-cheese filled Bear Claw. This is the pernicious cycle of pollute, then mollify then pollute some more and mollify even more.

We have to find ways to break the cycle and to encourage Port Commissioners that not doing the wrong things and thus protecting us is ultimately the healthy choice. Because no matter how many do-gooder projects they engage in, they know that those positive effects absolutely pale when compared with the damage the airport inflicts on our communities.

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