Port's hiring process should be more open

The closed hiring process for a new project manager was certainly legal, yet it was disappointing for a public agency.

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Port of Walla Walla commissioners and the agency's executive director should have been more politically sensitive and savvy than to hire a project manager for $60,000 a year without publicly advertising the position.

Yes, the way the part-time job was filled was legal for the public economic development agency. And, given that Port officials were confident they had the perfect fit for the job, a public search to fill the position might well have been a waste of time and money.

Nevertheless, the Port is funded with tax dollars and therefore answers to the taxpayers -- the voters. Its three commissioners are elected by the people to oversee operation of the government agency.

Paul Wemhoener, a former chief operating officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District office, was hired as the Port's project manager March 12.

Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said Wemhoener was the leading candidate for the job because of his three decades of experience with the Corps, including expertise in regulatory permitting as well as all phases of engineering and construction management.

"He has the exact skill set that's really going to be beneficial to the Port," Kuntz said, adding that since Wemhoener was such an ideal candidate, he did not think it necessary to advertise publicly for the job.

Necessary? No. The law apparently gives the agency latitude in filling such positions. The new position is considered part-time, up to 30 hours average per week per pay period with a wage of $40 per hour.

But opening the job was certainly the appropriate thing to do. Government agencies have a duty to do their business in public as much as possible. Opening up this job would not have been a hardship. And, who knows, there might have been someone out there who was even more qualified.

Ironically, openness was the theme of last fall's campaign for Port commissioner when Barlow Corkrum challenged incumbent Mike Fredrickson. The election was close with Fredrickson retaining his seat.

However, even those who opted not to vote for Corkrum seemed to agree he made a good point with his call for the Port to be more transparent in its meetings and decision making.

Just after the election the Port Commission took action to outfit its meeting room with a state-of-the-art recording system so the public would have an audio record of the meetings.

It also committed to reducing the length of the meetings to make it more convenient for people to attend.

We were pleased with the Port's actions, believing commissioners got the message that a public agency must do its business in public.

Now, we have to wonder whether the three commissioners and the executive director really understand -- or embrace -- the importance of operating the agency in an open, transparent manner.

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