Port OKs travel expenses to Panama

MANATEE — The Manatee County Port Authority on Thursday authorized the chairman and vice chairman to travel to Panama for a meeting with canal and business officials in February.

After going back and forth with motions passing and failing, the port authority agreed to spend $1,700 each to send the two top officials along with a representative from the Economic Development Council as well as several staff members, who will be chosen by port Executive Director David McDonald.

Steve Tyndal, senior director trade development and special projects for the port, told the board a trip to the Central American country Feb. 21-24 would build personal relationships with business owners in the Canal Zone.

The trip is a follow up to the memorandum of understanding McDonald signed with the Panama Canal Authority, establishing a cooperative alliance between the two entities.

McDonald told the authority board members how important the upcoming trip was to the port’s success.

“Relationships in Latin America are built on face to face contact,” he said. “They want to see and know the people they are dealing with.”

The memorandum of understanding, one of only 13 the canal zone authority signed with ports in the United States, will put Port Manatee in a better position to be a destination for containerized shipping once the Panama Canal widening project is completed in 2014.

Vice Chairman Ron Getman pointed out that it was “important for us to get in now and establish relationships” in Panama.

But Board Member Donna Hayes was concerned about spending tax dollars to send all the authority members on a trip during bad economic times.

“The people don’t want commissioners to go on trips, especially out of the country,” Hayes said.

She said the authority should pay for board Chairman Larry Bustle and some port staff, and if any of the other board members want to go, they should pay the $1,700 cost.

Confusion and disagreements among the board members started when a motion Hayes made restricting the spending of port funds, which died for the lack of a second.

Board Member John Chappie agreed it was important for the authority to be represented in Panama and then made a motion that would at a minimum send the chairman and vice chairman of the board, two Manatee County staff personnel, and a representative of the non-govenmental Economic Development Council.

Board Member Joe McClash asked whether this would restrict the authority from paying for other board members to take the trip, reminding the board that travel policies established at a previous meeting do not limit board members from attending conferences and meetings.

Chappie said his motion did not stop other board members from going, but another board member could make that motion.

Getman asked the port Finance Officer Bob Armstrong how much tax money will be spent on the trip, and Armstrong said no tax dollars will be used because the port operates with fees paid by companies that do business with the port.

This is when the issue became confusing, and port attorney Chip Rice recommended the board rescind all motions and make a new motion.

A final motion to authorize only the chairman and vice-chairman as the only board members to go on the trip passed 4-3, with McClash, Getman and Board Member Gwen Brown voting in the minority.