Op-Ed: Making Political Hay Out of Port’s Tay Yoshitani
It’s difficult to get business done when someone else is playing politics.
For all the uproar over Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani’s appointment to the board of Expeditors International (where he joins former University of Washington president Mark Emmert), critics have had an uphill battle when it comes to demonstrating actual impropriety.
Some context is helpful. After the tenure of Mic Dinsmore at the Port of Seattle, the Port had acquired a reputation as a sort of clown-car, disgorging unseemly revelations. Tay Yoshitani was the commissioners’ unanimous pick to turn the Port around, both in terms of efficiency and in terms of the frequency of scandals hitting the front pages.
The commissioners coaxed him into moving to Seattle–certainly that industry-leading salary, a precedent set by Dinsmore, couldn’t have hurt. Yoshitani was supposed to be a triple-bottom-line CEO, but in the event, it has been the fiscal bottom line that he’s watched most closely. The Port’s green credentials haven’t always been a selling point.
It wasn’t an easy task to turn to the culture around–one of Yoshitani’s first challenges was riding out the porn-and-racist-email scandal–but over time, the Port made the news more reliably because of its legitimate operations, rather than backroom deals. Now, the Port is “considered among the most admired and efficient in the country,” notes the Maritime Professional blog.
Very recently, the Port has seen itself embroiled in an unhelpful dispute with the “bring back the Sonics” crowd, after weighing in against a SoDo arena. There was a hint of the bad old days to the way that it developed that “concerned private citizen” Peter Steinbrueck was actually on the Port payroll as a consultant. Now embittered Sonics fans are grinding their axe on anything that says “Port of Seattle.”
This wrong-footing was out of character for the “new” Port. But now it’s becoming clear that Yoshitani is negotiating an exit when his contract is up in 2014, and people are jostling to take political advantage of the shift. How else to read Port Commission President Gael Tarleton’s actions?
The Port Commission agreed to an employment contract with Yoshitani that specifically permitted his appointment to a for-profit board. (Tarleton was against it, in fairness, but it passed a vote. Presumably she knows something about the stress of juggling two jobs, though, since she’s also running for state representative while acting as Port commissioner.)
In any event, when the Seattle Times runs a headline that notes “Port CEOs elsewhere rarely sit on boards of for-profit companies,” it’s somewhat off-the-mark. It would be better phrased: “Port commissions elsewhere rarely allow Port CEOs….” And yet ours did. It seems churlish to blame Yoshitani for that
Now age 66, Yoshitani said joining a private company board fit his long-term plans for what he called the “twilight” of his career. That was why he had secured a clause in his port contract three years ago permitting him to join such a board, because he saw that as a way to transition from full-time work.
Still, the conflict of interest question–even though people have trouble nailing down precisely how Yoshitani might use his influence to benefit Expeditors at the expense of the Port–is a fair one. The Port’s missteps often arise from failures of governance, and this is no exception: Here, a Port employee was in the position of vetting conflicts of interest in his boss’s retirement strategy.
It is genuinely worrisome that the Port Commission, even before Yoshitani has left, has shown signs of slipping back into its former role as a CEO rubberstamp. It happens that I think confidence in Yoshitani’s integrity is well-placed, but why expose your CEO and organization to this when outside counsel is available?