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Originally published March 5, 2013 at 8:47 PM | Page modified March 5, 2013 at 8:47 PM

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Port pay: from roaches to riches

One local public official said his pay was so low he survived by eating Top Ramen in a roach-filled apartment. But will higher pay really lead to better political performance?

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Tom Albro is trying to make a sale so tough he won’t actually buy his own product.

Albro’s a commissioner for the Port of Seattle. They run the airport and seaport. But what’s gotten them in the news of late is the Port CEO taking on a little moonlighting work (for $230,000 a year on top of his $367,000 public salary!) and a commissioner resigning in turmoil.

He says what ails the Port is: They aren’t paid enough.

“I’ll give you this — you don’t just tell the public whatever they want to hear,” I joked to Albro when we talked Tuesday about his idea.

Albro has proposed giving the five elected Port commissioners a sevenfold raise, from $6,000 a year to $42,000. Port staff, led by CEO Tay Yoshitani, has long made private-sector wages, often well into the six figures.

The premise that any politician might be underpaid is so radioactive that Albro pledged to never take the higher salary himself.

“That’s to blunt the criticism that this is for selfish reasons,” Albro said. “I genuinely believe this will make a better commission for the public.”

It is odd that Port commissioners, who oversee (but don’t run) a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise, are paid only a fraction as much as the airport shoeshine guy. It’s always been a strange “job,” where the perks are not pay but the trade junkets and business schmoozing.

It works mainly for “rich, old white men,” one commissioner said.

Recently I asked Rob Holland why he quit the Port Commission, because he had never explained. He resigned after a Seattle Times story about problems he had in the job, such as misuse of his Port credit card, but insists it wasn’t the story that did it.

“I got tired of being poor,” he says.

As he tells it, getting elected all but derailed his career in transportation and logistics. Companies didn’t want to hire him due to “concerns about conflicts of interest” with the Port.

“I lost my ability to make a living the first year,” Holland says. “I was living on $500 in a roach-filled apartment eating Top Ramen.”

Albro said his pay-raise idea isn’t due to Holland. But “there’s no question Rob’s situation gives a case in point.”

Now no one deserves roaches (although who hasn’t lived off Top Ramen?). But my hangup is I’m not seeing much of a link between political pay and performance, at any price point.

We pay members of Congress $174,000 a year to lurch from crisis to manufactured crisis.

Currently, Seattle’s mayor and city attorney, both making north of $150,000, are feuding like toddlers over the Police Department.

Or take Holland. He had enough bizarre clashes and judgment lapses that paying him more may have only prolonged the damage.

So is there a right price? One citizen at Tuesday’s Port meeting said commissioners may be underpaid at $6,000, but deemed it “outrageous” they want the same $42,000 as state legislators.

“They are responsible for the entire state, you people supervise one Port!” she scolded.

I had to laugh. You mean the same state legislators in the news for back-stabbing each other in a coup, for not reading their own bills and now for wanting to tax bicyclists because their heavy breathing contributes to global warming?

Albro’s pay raise is likely to pass, so we’ll get to see if it works. Don’t count on it. Politics seems stubbornly resistant to that law that we get what we pay for.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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