BRADENTON — A proposal to hire a transition administrator at Port Manatee sparked more than two weeks worth of contentious debate voiced in an ongoing exchange of e-mails, memorandums, allegations and public record requests among port and county officials.
After all that and a four-hour meeting Tuesday of the Manatee County Port Authority, the board approved a recommendation brought to its attention three weeks ago by port director David McDonald.
In an Aug. 3 memorandum, McDonald suggested the port authority form a selection committee to oversee the request for qualifications for concessionaire advisory services at Port Manatee.
The port authority agreed on this solution after McDonald and several port tenants voiced concern, for the first time in a public forum, over port authority chairman Larry Bustle’s recommendation to hire maritime consultant Paul DeMariano as a transition administrator.
“I think the authority listened to the tenants which are the most important component of the port,” McDonald said of the authority’s decision to allow a selection committee to evaluate the concessionaire applications. “Without the tenants you have no jobs, you have no cargo, you have no revenue.”
Port Manatee tenants brought before the port authority a joint statement in which they said they were concerned and confused by the board’s desire to hire a transition administrator.
Those who signed the joint statement included some of Port Manatee’s top tenants including Gearbulk, Del Monte, Kinder Morgan, Logistec, SeaBridge, Liberty Terminals and Federal Maritime.
“We find it a bit redundant if you’re going to have an advisor for an advisor when there’s already an advisor on the staff that the county’s paying for,” said Chris Sheils, general manager of Gearbulk.
R.K. Johns & Associates, a New Jersey-based port consulting firm is paid $98,000 a year to advise Port Manatee and the port authority.
The port authority is seeking concessionaire advisory services to research the business potential Port Manatee might see if it changes its business model by hiring an outside company to manage terminal leasing operations that the port currently manages.
The concessionaire advisory services are expected to cost $250,000.
McDonald cautioned the port authority about the importance of keeping open communication with tenants on business matters.
“I ask you to listen to your tenants,” McDonald said. “They are the life of this port, they are your future. I implore you to restore that level of confidence in your tenants.”
Larry Bustle, chairman of the port authority, defended his proposal to hire DeMariano as a transition administrator. Bustle said DeMariano’s more than 30 years of port experience would be fitting for him to come on as an advisor to recommend a candidate for concessionaire advisory services from the applications that are due Sept. 15.
“My thinking is we need some sort of expert advisor to advise this body on decisions we need to make and how to make them,” Bustle said. “It’s important to note that the transition advisor I’m talking about is not to select or transition to a new port director. This is merely to help us transition to a concessionaire.”
Instead those that will be charged with overseeing the request for qualifications on the concessionaire advisory services are clerk of court Chips Shore, county administrator Ed Hunzeker, Port Manatee consultant Peter Keller, a port tenant and McDonald. The selection committee will review applications for the concessionaire advisory services that are due Sept. 15 and will make a recommendation for the authority to vote on.
In other news, the port authority briefly discussed a succession plan for McDonald, who will retire Jan. 31, 2012. McDonald proposed the authority consider hiring a national firm to recruit for a new executive director who would work alongside him for about three months prior to his retirement.
McDonald enrolled in the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program about three years ago and intended to notify the port authority a year before his retirement.
“Three to six months is usually the standard,” McDonald said. “I’m giving the board three times the average time it takes for an appropriate transition.”
Grace Gagliano, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 745-7081.