Lawmakers give governor an earful about ferries

OLYMPIA — Two state lawmakers who have been sharply critical of Washington State Ferries asked the governor on Monday to remove some of the agency’s top leaders as a newly hired director takes the helm.

Reps. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, made the request to Gov. Jay Inslee in a closed-door meeting in which they explained their frustrations surrounding the construction of new vessels and souring relations between workers and managers.

They urged Inslee to give incoming director Lynne Griffith — who begins work Tuesday — the backing she’ll need to act to restore public confidence in the nation’s largest ferry system.

“I think it was a very honest exchange,” Smith said afterward. “I feel like the governor listened and was thoughtful and the proof will be in the actions that follow.”

Seaquist said he made the point that Griffith should not inherit George Capacci, the interim ferries chief, as part of her senior leadership team.

“We offered our views on why it is important. This is the governor’s and (Transportation) Secretary (Lynn) Peterson’s decision,” Seaquist said. “I am completely satisfied that he understands our position.”

The meeting lasted 75 minutes, more than twice as long as scheduled.

David Postman, executive director of communications for the governor, cautioned against inferring too much from the extended time.

“Things often go longer than scheduled. The governor was certainly glad to have a chance to hear from the legislators,” he wrote in an email. “But beyond that, I don’t want to characterize their private conversations today.”

Publicly and privately, Smith and Seaquist have voiced discontent with leaders of Washington State Ferries. And the summer sailing season proved to be troublesome, with the breakdown of a boat among other events.

Smith, who is more taciturn than Seaquist, has upbraided ferry officials for building three new 64-car ferries that leaned, by design, when empty. Officials later agreed to add ballast to eliminate the lean, and it turned out the move enabled the vessels to run more smoothly and use less fuel.

They disagreed with staffing decisions that resulted in scrubbed sailings. And the latest frustration came earlier this year when the two felt they had been misled about an issue with the newest vessel in the fleet, the Tokitae.

The lawmakers reported that some vehicles bottomed out in the transition from ramps to upper parking decks. They said managers told them there was no design flaw, only to admit later there was a problem that needed fixing.

With their concerns mounting and patience thinning, Smith and Seaquist asked the governor in June to appoint an independent panel of experts to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation” of ferry operations and labor-management issues.

They also said a major overhaul of upper management in the ferries division was needed to restore public trust.

Another widely publicized ferry incident occurred in August, when the Cathlamet was en route from Bremerton to Seattle. Many passengers were headed to a Seahawks pre-season game. The captain returned to the dock fearing that it was overloaded by nearly 500 passengers. Officials said there was confusion about the vessel’s capacity. But an investigation found that the ferry wasn’t overloaded — only that boarding passengers were mis-counted.

In Monday’s meeting, Inslee made no commitments to leadership changes and urged the two lawmakers to sit down with Griffith, who will be assistant secretary of transportation.

Smith said she differs from Seaquist as to when a shakeup is needed.

She said Griffith needs time — and help from outside experts — to identify the “root causes” of ferry system problems and to craft solutions. After that, staffing changes can be made, she said.

“She has to have the expertise available to her to make assessments across all areas,” Smith said.

Seaquist said he understood and wants to see where the governor steers the situation from here.

“I am completely confident the governor is totally engaged and is determined to see improvements happen,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed. Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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