County continues talks on restructuring Port Authority

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The Lincoln County Commission at its Wednesday meeting continued discussing the restructuring of the Lincoln County Port Authority, the quasi-governmental organization the county created in 2003 to develop the 400-acre former Stimson Lumber Company site in Libby.

The conversation started Nov. 29, following a Nov. 9 meeting about redeveloping the site and ongoing concerns from residents and potential entrepreneurs. Further, the Commission pointed to the site’s existing and potential liabilities as cause for concern for the county, which, Commissioner Mark Peck said Nov. 29, could no longer take its long-standing hands-off approach with the Port Authority’s oversight.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Peck recommended that governing of the Port Authority rest on the shoulders of the Commission instead of on its nine-member volunteer board. (Due to a vacancy, the board currently has eight people.)

“It’s above the call of duty to expect nine volunteers to provide support” for the economic development of the Port Authority site, Peck said.

To replace the current structure of the governing board, Peck said he envisioned an advisory board of three to five members, perhaps including one of the three Commissioners and Libby Mayor Brent Teske.

County staff could assist with operations needs, he said.

Despite the proposed changes, Peck indicated “it’s crucial we keep the (Port Authority’s) structure in place,” reiterating that the question is how to improve the governance of that structure.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel too much,” Commissioner Mike Cole noted.

Part of that structure is Tina Oliphant, the Port Authority’s executive director, and Brett McCully, its operations manager. Cole wondered whether to “bring them under the county umbrella,” a matter that City Administrator Darren Coldwell said needed more discussion, adding that their skills could perhaps be put to good use in county projects in addition to economic development at the Port Authority.

“They bring a whole new chair to the table we don’t have right now,” Coldwell said. “A lot depends on how interested they are.”

Similarly, the point was raised that county employees and advisors could also be tapped to fulfill needs at the Port Authority as they arise. Commissioner Jerry Bennett, who sits on the Port Authority board, said there is “expertise we utilize in different areas of county government (that could) possibly help us move quicker than historically we’ve seen at the board level.”

“I think that the (new) structure is going to be more positive for staff going forward than it currently is,” he said.

Peck suggested any decisions be made by early January, acknowledging that more discussions need to happen to firm up the new structure and to gauge how board members and Oliphant and McCully feel about next steps.

“A lot of communication needs to happen before we make a decision,” he said.

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