Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 4:05 PM on Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sheffield steps down as director of Port of Anchorage



Al Grillo

Associated Press file photo, Al Grill In this Oct. 26, 2007, file photo, Port of Anchorage Director Bill Sheffield talks about the proposed port expansion in his Anchorage office.

Port of Anchorage Director Bill Sheffield is retiring from his post, effective Jan. 15. The 83-year-old former governor has been running Alaska's principal port since 2001 and leaves behind a combination of accomplishments as well as controversies.

In a release, Sheffield said he is retiring to spend more time with friends while investing in philanthropies and nonprofits. He said he will continue to support federal efforts toward transportation funding.

Sheffield will stay connected to the port in a federal liaison capacity paying $60,000 annually. This salary is to come out of the municipality's existing government relations contracts, according to Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who said the goal is for him to help the municipality continue working with established government connections.

"My service over the last decade at the Port of Anchorage, Alaska's port, represents some of the best years of my life," Sheffield said in the release. "It has been an honor to continue my commitment to the municipality, the state and to Alaskans. Serving Alaskans in multiple capacities over the past 30 years has been one of the highest honors of my life."

Sullivan said that while some names have come to mind to replace Sheffield, a formal request for applications will be submitted. Deputy Port Director Stephen Ribuffo will serve as acting director until a permanent replacement is found.

Sheffield's departure comes during a time when a massive port expansion project is under way. The project is already several years behind schedule and several hundred million dollars over budget. Sheffield has acknowledged problems surround the project.

In his release, Sheffield states that he saw the need for modernization and expansion when he first arrived at the port, but that expansion has faced its share of challenges.

This expansion has become the primary source of conflict surrounding Sheffield, especially due to its ballooned budget of $1 billion. Sheffield suggested a more scaled-down version that could cost $665 million, which the city asked the Legislature for help with last year to the tune of $350 million.

"When I arrived at the port in 2001, we recognized the necessity of modernization and continually worked to develop that objective through the Intermodal Expansion Project. The project has faced challenges, but we have worked hard over the last two years to get the management and construction back on the correct course," Sheffield said.

Sheffield was not available for comment. His spokeswoman, Lindsey Whitt, said his statements for the time were issued in the release announcing his retirement.

The same day Sheffield issued this release, Sullivan called a press conference to answer questions about it. Sheffield was not present at the conference.

Sullivan said Sheffield's decision does not stem from the project or outside pressures, but in fact has been on the former governor's mind for quite some time. He said this decision comes from a two and a half year timeline and that Sheffield had offered a letter of resignation when Sullivan first took office. Sullivan said he turned down the letter at the time, asking Sheffield to stay on a few more years because he felt Sheffield was critical to getting the port project back on track.

"And now we are there. In fact, the $350 million port bond request that we asked for and the governor has now put a port bond into his legislative package shows that there is great confidence that the port project is back on track and Governor Sheffield gets a lot of credit for over the last two years helping us get to this point," Sullivan said.

He said this $350 million applies to the scaled-down North End phase, which would serve the main customers, particularly Totem Ocean Trailer Express and Horizon Lines. Sullivan acknowledged that "in an ideal world" the full expansion would indeed go to the $1 billion mark, but said he doesn't believe this is necessary.

As far as Sheffield's role in the expansion, Sullivan said it was not the director's job to oversee the expansion, but to manage the port while the federal government handled the construction.

"And quite frankly I think he did a great job of it," he said.

He said it is more productive to look forward to the project's future rather than looking at who to blame for setbacks so far.

Sheffield said, "I am confident that I leave the port a more profitable, vibrant and thriving facility. It is the lifeline for nearly all of Alaska. It is our lifeline for today and the key to economic growth for tomorrow."

Sullivan agreed.

Sullivan acknowledged the project has faced time and budget complications, saying he believed that U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration was probably not the right federal agency to use and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have been more appropriate. He also said some of the contractors probably did not perform to the highest quality standards.

Sullivan said the city intends to pursue taking over the project after May 2012, which he hopes will ensure more accountability. He said Sheffield's contracting role will hopefully help keep the federal government involved in the project.

However, the blame for budget and construction delays has caused a stir regarding Sheffield's role over the years. Some have called for his removal, which Sullivan said was not a factor in the director's decision to leave.

Sheffield's career includes founding a hotel chain and serving as president of the Alaska Railroad Corp. from 1997 to 2001. He served as governor from 1982 to 1986. However, he faced impeachment charges from a grand jury in 1985 for allegedly trying to steer funds to supporters. The state Senate voted against moving forward on the charges.

Jonathan Grass is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.