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Port of Longview

In this 2107 Daily News file photo by Bill Wagner, four ships line the Port of Longview docks. 

Port of Longview CEO Norm Krehbiel still has three months left before he retires, but one commissioner Tuesday sought to cut off his hiring authority sooner.

“I just wish we would allow the new leadership to build (staff) … rather than the old leadership,” Commissioner Jeff Wilson told The Daily News after a special commission meeting Tuesday.

Wilson moved to temporarily suspend the CEO’s authority to hire any administrative or executive positions until the commission replaces Krehbiel, who is retiring in February.

The motion died after failing to receive a second.

“The CEO, even though he’s leaving, still has to do his job,” Commission President Doug Averett said. “If there is a good fit for the external affairs position, (Norm) should move forward (in hiring).”

The issue arose because Krehbiel has been working with Ashley Helenberg, the port’s director of external affairs, to “reconfigure” her three-employee department. Helenberg asked to step down into one of her department’s vacant positions so she could focus on advertising the port to potential clients, and the port could hire a new director to be “more tuned into the government relations side, Krehbiel told TDN after the meeting.

“A lot of it goes back to the industrial rail corridor expansion. We know we have that coming up … and there’s a need to increase our efforts on government relations, going to Washington, D.C., for grant applications or funding opportunities, as well as Olympia,” he said.

Helenberg said after the meeting she did not want to increase her travel and lobbying responsibilities because “I want to spend more time with my family and kids.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Wilson contended that Krehbiel created a new position specifically for Helenberg without consulting the commission about how such a role would affect the budget. Although Krehbiel has authority to hire employees, he should speak to the commission about any decisions that could change the budget and seek its guidance, Wilson said.

“When we create administrative positions ... that affects our organizational chart,” Wilson said. “The port commission has to have an understanding of that prior, not after, because there’s an impact to budget.”

Krehbiel and other port staff say the position reassigns and renames some of the roles in Helenberg’s department but does not create a new position. And Helenberg’s “new” role is already accounted for in the budget commissioners approved last month.

“The term ‘impact’ implies that there was an expenditure outside of the authorized budget, which is not the case for either 2019 or 2020,” Helenberg said. “The 2019 budget is well under its budgeted number because the department operated short staffed for three-quarters of the year and it was discussed and included in the 2020 budget that was adopted by the commission in November.”

(Although her current salary is among the top 10 at the port, Helenberg did not appear on the port’s top 10 list of salaries for 2020 because her $102,951 salary in 2019 will take a pay cut with the new position. Her salary for 2020 was not immediately available.

The port started advertising to replace Helenberg as director of external affairs about six weeks ago, Commissioner Allan Erickson said, and Krehbiel should be allowed to continue that process.

“I can’t imagine a new CEO would want to jump in instantly and fill a key position,” Erickson said during the meeting.

Erickson also disagreed that Krehbiel needed to run the “rewriting of a job description” by the commission because “it’s within Norm’s decision to make those kinds of decisions” about filling vacancies and changing job duties.

“Did Norm discuss it with us in advance. No. But that’s within his parameters as CEO to make those kinds of decisions,” Erickson told TDN after the meeting. “It doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t do that. And I don’t want to micromanage the department. That’s not the way I see our way as commissioners to do that.”

In an interview after the meeting, Wilson said he anticipates the direction of the port will change when it hires a new CEO, and he’s in “no hurry to misstep” by adding new staff members that don’t fit with a new leader’s vision.

“I do not support my other two commissioners on allowing very critical positions to be filled during the last few days of (Krehbiel’s) position. I think that should be reserved and respectfully involve the new CEO,” Wilson said.

Wilson also said he scrutinized Krehbiel’s decision to switch staff in the external affairs department because he didn’t feel it was a fair, transparent process.

“We do not give our CEO a blank check when it comes to employment. No port would do that,” Wilson said. “If there is an impact to the budget, we (the commissioners) are accountable to the public.”

Krehbiel plans to retire in February after a nearly 30-year career at the port. He’s served as CEO since 2016.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting the commission authorized its legal firm to seek at least two proposals for a recruiting service to potentially help in hiring a new CEO, and it planned a special workshop for Jan. 9 to review the CEO’s job description.

Commissioners also noted that they are considering selecting an interim CEO to fill Krehbiel’s role after February, because hiring a permanent replacement is likely to take several months.

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