A time of uncertainty at Port of Benton. Who we recommend to bring stability | Editorial

Voters will have to choose a commissioner for the Port of Benton while a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the organization.

Scott Keller, the Port’s longtime executive director, abruptly retired in June after working 30 years for the agency. His replacement is supposed to be selected no later than the Nov. 13 commission meeting, but that is well after ballots are due Nov. 5.

The executive director leads a staff of about 22 and manages about $90 million in port assets, including the municipal airports in Richland and Prosser. It’s a big responsibility.

In addition to the executive director’s job, the Port also is looking to hire a facilities manager and an airport manager.

And, as if that’s not enough upheaval, Port officials announced last week they are hiring an independent investigator to review a staff complaint — the details are unknown to the public.

The Tri-City Herald requested a summary of the allegation, but the port’s attorney said the complaint won’t be released until the investigation is done.

There appears to be a significant amount of unrest within the organization at the moment, and that is a concern. While we don’t like making an election recommendation with so many issues unsettled, we are going to suggest voters re-elect Port of Benton Commissioner Roy Keck.

The commission will need continuity amid all the upcoming staff changes, and Keck has been on the commission since 2007.

This is the first time we’ve seen so much turmoil hit the Port of Benton all at once, and since Keck will not be on a learning curve he should be able to help bring stability once an executive director is hired.

Keck’s challenger is Bill O’Neil, who is an accomplished pilot and spent most of his career working as a flight test engineer for NASA. He later worked as project manager at the Hanford site.

O’Neil appreciates Keller’s commitment to protecting the Richland and Prosser airport facilities and, now that Keller is gone, he is running for office because keeping those airports open is his top concern.

He said he wants to make sure they don’t go away like the Vista Field airport in Kennewick. He also wants to ensure smaller projects are getting as much attention as long-term developments.

O’Neil said he often flies around the country, and would be able to promote the Port of Benton and bring new business to the community. As for concerns with the current commission, O’Neil said he questions the amount of money port officials spend traveling to conferences and training events, and said he isn’t sure it is worth it.

Keck assured the Tri-City Herald editorial board that both airports will continue on, and that the Port of Benton has made huge investments to improve them.

On the travel issue, Keck countered that certification programs for port officials require going to classes, and that requires travel. He added that the Port of Benton budgets are routinely audited internally and by the state, and they are “clean.”

The Port of Benton is facing some challenges, and the short-term staffing gaps are complicating matters. O’Neil is a sharp guy, and we appreciate his concern over the airports now that Keller has retired.

Keck’s institutional knowledge, however, will be needed as the organization transitions with new staff.

The Tri-City Herald recommends Roy Keck for Port of Benton Commission.


Behind Our Election Recommendations

Who decides the recommendations?

Members of The Tri-City Herald editorial board interview political candidates, as well as advocates and opponents of ballot measures. The editorial board is comprised of experienced opinion journalists and community members, and is separate from The Herald’s newsroom. Conversations are on the record.

What does the recommendation process entail?

Whenever possible, The Herald editorial board meets with opposing candidates at the same time. The questions are largely focused on a candidate’s qualifications and goals, and the hour-long session resembles a conversation more than a scripted interview. The editorial board then discuss the candidates in each race and decides who to recommend. In the case of ballot measures, we strive to have representatives from both sides of the issue in the room at the same time so we can get past the political rhetoric and obtain firm answers. Board members seek to reach a consensus on our recommendations, but not every decision is unanimous.

Is the editorial board partisan?

No. In making recommendations, members of the editorial board consider which candidates are well prepared to represent their constituents — not whether they agree with us or belong to a particular political party. We evaluate candidates’ relevant experience, their readiness for office, their depth of knowledge of key issues, their understanding of public policy and their ability to work with the current board . We’re seeking candidates who are thoughtful and who offer more than just party-line talking points. The editorial board will endorse both Republicans and Democrats.

Why are the editorials unsigned?

Our election recommendations reflect the collective views of The Herald’s editorial board — not just the opinion of one writer. Board members all discuss and contribute ideas to each editorial.

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