Port of Sacramento, Calif., Seeks New Leader to Turn Financial Picture Around

The Sacramento Bee via NewsEdge Corporation : Sep. 2--The Port of Sacramento's governing board acknowledged Wednesday that it's seeking a new leader to help turn around the money-losing facility in West Sacramento.

Next Friday, the port commission plans to interview two to four candidates in search of a management expert who can analyze the port's options and build public consensus on difficult decisions about the future.

Port Director John Sulpizio is expected to continue running day-to-day activities but likely would cede policy issues and overall authority to the new executive. For months, his job performance has been under review by the port's

The port lost $1.69 million the fiscal year ending June 30 and is expected to run large losses again in 2005 after an $800,000-a-year fertilizer operation recently decided to move its bagging business elsewhere.

"This is a very desperate situation," said Robbie Waters, a Sacramento city councilman and port commissioner. Without dramatic changes, he said, "We are going to lose the port."

From neighborhood activists to unions, port interest groups generally said the board's headhunting is prudent given the complex port dynamics and the stakes: 115 full-time jobs and a big chunk of land in the center of the fast-growing region.

"That they are willing to look at (new leadership) is probably a good sign," said Derek Backus, a West Sacramento resident who wants to see the port move toward non-industrial uses. "I don't know if it is too little, too late."

Agustin Ramirez, chairman of the alliance of port labor unions, said: "We do welcome any new help -- new ideas."

The port has struggled in recent years because of a soft economy, an undersized channel and competition from Stockton.

It likely has enough money to last for several months, but port leaders realize they quickly need to settle on a recovery plan. Options range from abandoning the port's maritime mission to more industrial development.

The port commission has hired CPS Human Resource Services in Sacramento to find prospective leaders who could navigate the next six to 18 months of what likely will be unprecedented change at the port. The firm specializes in public agency placements.

It's not clear yet how much money a new executive would make or how long he or she will stay in what is billed as an interim post.

Candidates are expected to have government management experience - for instance, an experienced city manager - though not necessarily in-depth knowledge of the shipping industry.

Key attributes sought by commissioners are the ability to solve problems, analyze business options, build consensus and handle the strong political personalities on the governing board.

"What they really need is somebody who can go through a whole series of very important decisions and choices," said John Shannon, managing consultant at CPS.

Commissioners are hesitant to talk about the specifics of any new leadership arrangement until they've settled on a new hire, which could be this month.

"I don't know that we are exactly sure what this person looks like or what that role will ultimately be," said port commission chairman Mike McGowan. "We'll know that person when we see them."

Sulpizio, who's held his post atop the port since 1995, is expected to focus on port operations. His base salary is $121,000 a year.

Sulpizio's staff has been whittled down during the budget crunch, and he said he welcomed more help. "I am convinced that (the commission) will be wise enough to make a decision that will benefit the port," he said.

Inside closed port commission meetings this summer, Sulpizio's job performance has been critiqued, though commissioners divulge little about those discussions, citing privacy laws that cover personnel matters.

Commissioner Waters thinks a new executive makes Sulpizio and his salary expendable, given the port's poor financial performance over the last three years.

"It's been very upsetting to me each year that we just keep going further and further in the hole," said Waters, a longtime Sulpizio critic. "I don't see any reason for him to stay."

Others, however, expressed confidence in Sulpizio's role under the new arrangement. "It allows John to focus on what he does very, very well," McGowan said.