Bill Wyatt, the longtime executive director of the Port of Portland announced today that he will retire June 30.
"Bill has been a skilled, dynamic and admired leader and I know I speak for all of the Commission when I say how grateful we are for his unparalleled service," said Port Commission President Jim Carter in statement.
The announcement is no surprise. In December 2013, Wyatt hired Curtis Robinhold as his deputy and soon afterward said he'd retire within three to five years.
Wyatt has enjoyed an extraordinarily long run at the port—17 years—in large part because he's built strong relationships in both the business and political realms. He's made the port's most visible asset, Portland International Airport, a wild success.
Wyatt started public life as a state representative from Astoria from 1974 to 1977, then led what is now the Portland Business Alliance for five years followed by running the Oregon Business Council for six years.
He then took the relationships he'd established in those posts back to Salem, where he served as chief of staff to former Gov. John Kitzhaber from 1995 though 2001.
Kitzhaber helped Wyatt land the top job at the Port, where he has guided the expansion and buffing of PDX, named the nation's top airport the past four years. Wyatt also oversaw the purchase and clean-up of one of the metro area's largest pieces of industrial land, the 800-acre former Reynolds aluminum plant in Troutdale.
He must also share in the blame for the idling of the port's container dock, which succumbed to the reality of being an inconvenient and expensive 100 river miles from the Pacific Ocean. That disadvantage wasn't helped by chronically poor labor relations with the longshoreman's union.
Wyatt mitigated the direct financial harm to the port by signing a long-term deal with a container terminal operator who pays the port even when the dock is idle. But there's no question that Oregon exporters, who are mostly agricultural, and importers are paying a price for the loss of that service.
Wyatt's departure raises a couple of intriguing questions. First, there's his own future. Oregon's two statewide business organizations, Associated Oregon Industries and the Oregon Business Association, have agreed to merge and will be looking for an executive director who can increase their combined effectiveness. Wyatt has long been mentioned as a potential candidate.
Second, his departure presents a dilemma and a test for Gov. Kate Brown.
The governor appoints the nine-member port commission, which then hires the executive director.
The past two directors—Wyatt, who had been Kitzhaber's first chief of staff, and his predecessor, former state Sen. Mike Thorne (D-Pendleton), launched into his position by former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt—were closely associated with powerful Democratic governors.
The port director's job is one of the juiciest plums an Oregon governor can bestow. The job pays about $400,000 and places the executive director in positions of prominence and power in the region's economy.
Brown's dilemma is this: Does she steer the job to Robinhold, Wyatt's deputy, or does she put in her own person?
Robinhold, like Wyatt, is a former Kitzhaber chief of staff (2011 to 2013). He's got strong political skills and private sector experience in high level positions at BP's alternative energy unit. He's a known quantity and obviously knows the job.
But Brown is the elected governor now, and after her win in November in the race to serve out the rest of Kitzhaber's term, she's a position to put her mark on the state and her own people in place.
She has probably noticed that Kitzhaber has broken with Oregon's traditional politeness to one's successors, slamming her indecision on Measure 97 this summer and, unlike former governors Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski, skipping her inauguration this week.
In an email today, Wyatt signaled what he'd like to see:
"The Commission president will be announcing the process for selection of the next executive director in the next few days," Wyatt wrote. "While I expect it to be an open and competitive process, I'm very pleased that my Deputy Curtis Robinhold will be a candidate. I've known Curtis for over 20 years, and I am entirely confident of his capacity for this important work."
Now it's up to Brown.