Over shouts of disapproval from commercial fishermen, longshoremen and other local residents, the Port of Bellingham board of commissioners voted 2-1 to accept a separation agreement with executive director Charlie Sheldon, during an April 3 meeting.
Sheldon, who was hired by the port in October 2010, submitted his resignation earlier that day.
According to the separation agreement, he will officially leave his position at the end of April. He will receive a severance package equivalent to five months’ pay.
Sheldon’s tenure was marked by disputes with commission president Scott Walker.
Walker had previously called for Sheldon to resign in October 2011, though at the time commissioners Jim Jorgensen and Mike McAuley voted no on a motion to request his resignation.
During commission meetings last month, Walker took exception to a series of travel and training expenses Sheldon signed off on, including one that sent Dan Zenk, the port’s aviation director, to an airline industry conference in the Bahamas.
The April 3 meeting’s public comment period was a stream of support for Sheldon.
Former Bellingham mayor Dan Pike took the opportunity to ask the commissioners to take a step back and reconsider letting the director go. He said Sheldon had been a tremendous asset to the port and to the economic vitality of Whatcom County.
“He had the integrity, he had the backbone and he had the confidence to do the job that needed to be done,” Pike said.
Commercial fisherman Robin Dexter told the commission he thought there had been a positive difference in the interaction between the port and the local commercial fishing industry since Sheldon took over as executive director.
Retired longshoreman John Munson said he had a chance to interact with Sheldon while working at the Port of Seattle, and he spoke in favor of the outgoing director.
“Charlie is someone who’s very skilled in accomplishing the art of the possible,” Munson said.
As the commission drew closer to a final vote on the separation agreement with Sheldon, the meeting grew tense. Supporters of the director called out in opposition to his resignation, directing much of their ire at Walker.
McAuley, who voted against the motion to accept the agreement, gave a lengthy defense of Sheldon, presenting budget information showing that the travel expenditures Walker had previously called into question fell within the port’s travel budget.
Walker said his issues with Sheldon’s expense decisions were not focused on whether they came within budget, but rather his disagreement with the procedures Sheldon used to allocate funding.
McAuley said he thought the commission had not given Sheldon the proper direction he needed when he was first hired.
Jorgensen, who voted along with Walker in favor of accepting the separation agreement, tried to temper the crowd. He said his vote was based on discussions with senior port staff, who made it clear a new course was needed.
“I think it’s important for you folks to know that this isn’t something that came out of the blue sky,” Jorgensen said. “It’s nothing about him not being a great guy—he’s a great guy—but we’re looking to go in a different direction, and I know that’s hard to understand for some of you right now.”
Before coming to Bellingham, Sheldon worked at the Port of Seattle. He also previously worked for port authorities in New York and New Jersey.
He replaced former executive director Jim Darling in 2010.