Panel considers hiring firm to evaluate port; Staff performance reviews unlikely

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 21

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority is preparing to hire a consulting firm to help the agency examine how it does business.

“I do believe we will need an outsider to help us through the process,” said James F. White, Jr., chairman of the port board’s strategic planning committee.

The committee is charged with rethinking the port’s operations and its goals. Yesterday, at the panel’s first meeting, board members said they want to start interviewing representatives from national consulting firms to see what they have to offer the port.

Several members said that the complexity of the agency’s operations make it difficult for the unpaid board members to perform a proper evaluation alone.

“There’s no way for us to really understand how the port is doing unless we have other situations and other experiences to compare it against,” said board member Bruce Baumhower.

The port authority oversees a variety of operations in Lucas County, including the Port of Toledo, Toledo Express Airport, and Central Union Plaza. It is designated by law as the county’s lead economic development agency, although it has transferred that responsibility to the Regional Growth Partnership.

The committee decided that the major focus of the strategic planning be the port board’s standing committees, such as the airport, seaport, and surface transportation panels. Mr. White said that each committee will be asked to evaluate the goals and objectives in its area of focus.

After discussion with consultants and other people who work with the agency, board members will unite the committee’s goals into a single document charting the port authority’s course over the next few years.

Mr. White said he will make a list of between five and seven national consulting firms qualified to do the work for the authority. From that list, he will choose three finalists and ask them to make presentations to the committee.

He mentioned McKinsey & Co. and Booz, Allen & Hamilton as possible candidates.

The group did not commit to hiring a consultant; Mr. White said that if “no acceptable candidates” can be found, or if the cost is too high, the full board could forgo the idea..

Board member George Ballas initially said he was unsure about a consultant. “I’m not sure someone from New York or New Orleans or Chicago or Miami can tell us how to run our business,” he said.

But other board members, led by Mr. White, argued for a consultant, and by the end of the meeting the group agreed unanimously to begin interviewing candidates.

“We know the Toledo scene better than anyone else, but a consultant would know what’s been tried elsewhere that we’re missing,” Mr. White said. “We don’t know the best practices. All we know are our practices.”

Board members did not say how much the agency would be willing to pay a consultant. They said private industry and the Regional Growth Partnership may be asked to contribute toward a consultant’s fee.

In 1992, the authority paid Mercer, a consultant firm, more than $200,000 to prepare the port’s strategic plan.

Mr. White said the committee’s work is unrestricted and could include anything from how the port board operates to how the airport is run.

“We want a complete evaluation of how the port works, starting at the top – and that’s the board,” he said. “We don’t want anything easy. We want the strategic plan to be a stretch for the entire agency.”

If hired, the consultant could be involved in much of that work, but it appears unlikely any hired firm would conduct performance evaluations on senior port staff.

Committee member Jerry Chabler has pushed for an outside evaluation for several months. Mr. Chabler has questioned the pay of some senior staff members and suggested some are under-performing.

“If everyone who works here is as good as [port President James Hartung] says, then let’s have an outsider come in and validate that,” he said.

But when Mr. Chabler broached the issue yesterday, he found little support from the other committee members.

“At my business, I wouldn’t hire a consultant to come in and tell me if my sales manager is doing a good job,” said J. Patrick Nicholson, port board vice chairman and chief executive officer of N-Viro International Corp. “That’s the job of the people in the company.”

“I would like to see an evaluation of the staff, not from a performance standpoint, but from a structure standpoint,” Mr. White said. “We may be able to better structure the staff. But it is up to us to evaluate our own people.”

Mr. Chabler, who had been one of the port authority’s most vocal critics before being appointed to the board this year, said he thinks the meeting went well. “I was impressed by what I heard,” he said. “Everyone is on the same page.”