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Seattle port commissioners stand by controversial payouts

The Port Of Seattle's waterfront operations

Port of Seattle commissioners stood by their decision to pay around 650 employees close to $5 million in bonus pay, even though a routine state audit found the payments violated the Washington state constitution. Still, commissioners will attempt to collect some of the money back and are weighing future legal action.

Following the audit, the port is currently seeking repayment of close to $18,000 from eight employees who should not have been paid in the first place.

Former Port CEO Ted Fick, who resigned last week, also gave himself an extra $24,500 in pay under the package approved in December 2015, but he kept that fact from the port commission until later, according to documents released by the port.

At a meeting Tuesday afternoon at the airport, Port of Seattle commissioners reflected on the events that led them to grant employees a one-time bonus worth 7 percent of their salary.

The idea was to boost morale and retain good employees amid vast organizational changes at the port, including changes to performance reviews and increasing the work week from its decades-long tradition of 37.5 hours to 40 hours a week.

Commissioner Stephanie Bowman defended the bonus pay, saying the changes put employees under a lot of stress.

“The turmoil and the angst that they were experiencing was unprecedented in my professional experience,” she said.

Port lawyer Craig Watson said the payments had passed legal review.

“I’m confident in our analysis, and I don’t necessarily know if we would have done it differently,” he said.

But the Washington Auditor’s office determined the payments violated the state constitution. The problem is employees were given incentive pay but the port didn’t have any benchmarks to measure their performance.

The port says it’s conducting a legal review to see if state law mandates they take further action.