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Public port agencies and port authorities are typically governed by Commissioners or a Board of Directors (for sake of ease, I’ll refer to these collectively as “Commissioners” for this article). Commissioners are responsible for the overall health and well-being of the port, and they discharge this responsibility in an oversight and guidance capacity. Generally, Commissioners will approve budgets as well as the port’s strategic and master plans and are accountable as the incorporating or designated responsible body for the port. The ideal board or commission has persons whose ability can benefit the organization and who are chosen in a fair and open process. They are generally business professionals whose careers are defined by professionalism, character, and integrity. They cannot have any personal or professional conflicts with the port’s interests. For example, no tenant of a port should ever hold a position on a board.

Board members should not be politically motivated; it can be challenging to design and maintain a board member selection process that accounts for this. The best board members are good communicators and willing to consider all sides, are fully supportive of management team to run the port, and are willing to provide sound advice to the director without micro-managing. The executive director, CEO, or port director reports directly to the board and is generally the only staff person doing so, unless a board chooses to have administrative support. As such, an effective management model for a port agency is a staff that reports to the director, and a director who reports to the Commissioners.

There are a number of challenges boards face today. These include:

  • Taking the Global View: what is happening outside the gate and beyond the bank

  • Thinking strategically

  • Local “fires” (urgent issues) that consume time, energy, and resources

  • Political pressure and local experts

  • Finding opportunities and effective Business Development

  • Understanding competition

  • Sorting out what really impacts your port

  • Understanding what we control and what we influence

  • Money, Cash Flow, and Capital needs

  • Staff burdens and responsibilities

  • Government processes/agencies

  • Grants

  • Updated administrative documents

  • Tariffs, Policy Manuals, Rules

  • Today’s “Blue Plate Special”

The board should identify a well-qualified and certified port professional to manage the port as its director, and to empower the director to hire and manage staff. It is critically important to understand that a port needs both financial and human resources to accomplish its goals. You cannot expect a port staff to undertake all of the responsibilities of managing a port if they don’t have sufficient personnel. We see this constantly at small ports: the demands far exceed the staff’s capacity to meet them.

Strategic planning is the most effective way to get on track and stay on track with regards to business development, successful growth, and investment. Strategic planning is often confused with master planning, however master planning refers specifically to the development of infrastructure. Effective strategic plans take a long view into the future with a number of short-term, actionable steps to reach the farsighted goals. A good strategic plan has measurable objective, which provides the Commissioners with a way to measure progress, identify and overcome challenges, and keep the director (and their staff) focused.

We always ask commissioners and staff in our training programs where they fit on the growth scale. Is your port focused on progress or process? If you are hung up on process or politics, then its time to rethink what you are doing. The IAMPE offer a custom Commissioners Seminar for new and existing commissioners designed to have guide commissioners in their responsibilities. To learn more, take a look at our website or drop us a note at


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