Port of Vancouver CEO Todd Coleman is stepping down effective May 19, the port announced Tuesday afternoon. His sudden and unexpected departure marks the end of a four-year run dominated by the controversy over the proposal, driven by Coleman, to build the nation’s largest oil terminal.
Coleman, 47, told The Columbian that his departure was a matter of personal timing, and not tied to the uncertain fate of the Vancouver Energy oil terminal.
“I agreed to come on board as the executive director/CEO to lead the port for four years exactly,” Coleman said by phone. “That four years would have ended April 30, which just happened to be last Saturday. Really it’s no surprise, per se — it was part of my intention.”
Coleman, a professional engineer who joined the port in 2001 and was made deputy executive in 2005, said he plans to take a few months off before embarking on something new.
His two weeks’ notice came unexpectedly for the port’s three commissioners, who will likely need to appoint an interim CEO at their May 10 meeting.
“We’re in the middle of a lot of good stuff, and I was surprised he would take this opportunity to move on,” Commissioner Brian Wolfe said.
But with all the acrimony surrounding Vancouver Energy’s rail-to-marine oil terminal proposal, Wolfe said: “It’s more stressful to him than he lets on.”
Opposition to the proposed 360,000-barrel-per-day terminal has been intense, especially in the past few weeks. Coleman had recommended against a contract extension for Vancouver Energy, which remains deep in the state permitting process. But on April 15, the port’s three commissioners voted to keep the terminal alive, albeit with conditions more favorable to the port.
“It would have been nice to have been through the process by now,” said Coleman, who remains a supporter of the terminal and said the commissioners’ decision had nothing to do with his departure. “I think the good that came out of the extension is, there is more certainty around the timing and the process.”
Commissioners moved the project’s permitting deadline from Aug. 1 to March 31, by which time the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council should have made a recommendation to the governor, who gets final say over the project.
Coleman’s time as CEO also drew accusations that the public port operated with little public involvement and worked out important decisions, like the oil terminal, behind closed doors. An environmental group said the fight over the terminal helped bring those discussions into the light.
“The era of public ports’ operating out of sight is over in the Northwest,” said Eric De Place, policy director for Seattle-based Sightline Institute. “With the recent onslaught of coal, oil and petrochemical project proposals has come an unprecedented level of civic engagement that is pressuring ports to clean up their business.”
The pressure from local and regional oil terminal opponents has been relentless, and surveys have shown a community divided over the project.
Despite the ongoing controversy, commissioners lauded Coleman’s time at the helm of the port for his leadership in major facilities improvements.
“This oil terminal has been divisive among the community,” Wolfe said, “but we’ve got the loop track completed, the track trench, we started on the waterfront and opened the Centennial Industrial Park.”
Coleman said those accomplishments, along with growing marine business and an increase of the port’s annual revenue from $32 million to $38 million, leave the port “well-positioned.”
Commissioner Jerry Oliver said in a news release that Coleman has been”a tireless advocate for the Port of Vancouver, our industry and the community. We will miss him greatly and wish him all the best.”
Commissioner Eric LaBrant, elected last fall an anti-terminal platform, said Coleman “did a good job keeping things running.”
“One of the questions everyone had with me during the campaign was, ‘How do you think you’ll get along with Todd Coleman?’ ” LaBrant said. “Here we are on the other side of the election, and I get along with him really well. I’m disappointed to see him go.”
After appointing an interim CEO, likely from among port staff, commissioners will start a search for a permanent replacement that could take months.
The last two port executives were promoted from within after serving as deputies to their predecessors. Coleman was made CEO in 2012 and Larry Paulson was tapped in 1998.
Coleman, meanwhile, has no deputy.
“We haven’t had to go on a national search for a long time as the port,” Wolfe said.