TAMPA — An organization that represents 47 companies doing business at Tampa's port wants port director Richard Wainio to leave when his contract expires in eight months.
"This can best be described as a vote of no confidence," wrote Timothy Shusta, president of the Port of Tampa Maritime Industries Association, in a letter Thursday to the Tampa Port Authority governing board. "A review of (Wainio's) record over the past six and a half years overwhelmingly supports this position."
By Sept. 30, board members must evaluate Wainio's performance and decide if they want him to stay in the job past March 5.
Wainio wasn't sent a copy of the letter Thursday but heard about its contents.
"From what I understand, it's all old issues that came up before," he said. "Some are just nonsense; some, opinion from a handful of people not happy with some of the decisions we've made."
Port Authority chairman Lawrence Shipp also said he's heard the complaints before.
"They'll have to be investigated," he said. "I don't know what's accurate and what's not accurate, what's personal and what's not personal."
Wainio, 61, has served as the Port Authority's chief executive since 2005. He earns $251,118 a year.
In support of its position that Wainio must go, the Maritime Industries Association cited significant declines in cargo tonnage and ship arrivals at the port since 2006.
The authority's operating income declined from about $5 million in the black at the beginning of his tenure to $1.1 million in the red last year, the letter said.
It said Wainio "is viewed as being unwilling or reluctant to solicit or accept suggestions, feedback or input in the development of port strategy, growth and operations."
He has been disrespectful toward business leaders, the letter said, and created a ''chilling effect" on public comment at board meetings.
Wainio called the industry association a small group that doesn't represent the larger port community, including importers, exporters and large shipping lines.
"If they really believe change is needed, I'd step down," he said. "But that's not the case."
Ports are often hotbeds of politics and competing interests, and Tampa's port is no different. Wainio has heard rumblings that critics were lining up to oust him.
His job certainly appeared safe last December. Bosses on the port board gave him rave reviews for his fifth year at the helm.
''Overall, Mr. Wainio does an excellent job running the port," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wrote. "Sometimes overly sensitive to criticism. Overall, he tries to do the right things for the right reasons."
Since then, Mayor Bob Buckhorn has taken over her seat on the board. Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman has replaced Rose Ferlita as the commission's representative. The same five gubernatorial appointees remain on board.
Wainio came to the port saying he wanted to smooth out rough spots between the public agency and some of its most vocal customers. That didn't always work out.
Within months of his arrival, the maritime industries group was raising old concerns: that the Port Authority was encouraging development of scarce land on the water for nonshipping uses — specifically, a U.S. Postal Service package distribution center at Port Ybor.
More recently, critics said Wainio wasn't doing enough to slow a steady decline in business at the port. Cargo by weight plunged 24 percent to 37.1 tons from fiscal 2006 to 2010. (The port's fiscal year starts Oct. 1.) Ship arrivals went from 3,699 to 3,009 — a 19 percent drop — over the same period.
Wainio blames the sour economy, Florida's dormant construction industry and the shift of cargo — such as the coal that fires Tampa Electric power plants — from ships to railroads.
"Anyone with a brain in his head knows the port doesn't have control over these things," he said in an interview last week. "If business declines because of market demand, there's nothing the port can do about that."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.