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The Washington State Department of Transportation will try again this summer to hire a new ferries director, after its first attempt failed.

What might seem a prestigious position has turned out to be difficult to fill — because of relatively low pay, ceaseless political demands and tension with maritime unions.

David Moseley’s retirement April 15 prompted a national search that yielded roughly 80 applications, 15 qualified candidates and six people interviewed, the state says. Still, the two finalists were local.

Capt. George Capacci, the Washington State Ferries’ (WSF) operations director, withdrew his application. That left John Ladenburg, a former Pierce County executive and Sound Transit board chairman, who had a one-hour final interview with Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.

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Peterson chose not to hire Ladenburg, who had pledged to rebuild statewide political and financial support for the ferry system.

“He certainly has quite a lot of experience, but I just don’t feel he was the change agent we need at Washington State Ferries right now,” Peterson said last week. She went on to say a person with maritime experience is needed, to help WSF modernize the aging fleet. She then jested about finding a “Superman.”

Peterson wouldn’t comment about whether she would have hired Capacci, saying through a spokesman it’s a moot question. Capacci, who now serves as interim director, declined an interview request.

Washington’s ferry system is the nation’s largest, carrying more than 22 million passengers a year on 23 vessels serving 10 routes. It’s a major attraction for tourists, and walkaboards abound on the Seattle routes. Compared with B.C. Ferries, one of whose vessels sank in 2006, WSF has maintained a stellar safety record.

Yet there is little reason to think a second search will yield better results.

One problem is the pay range — $118,000 to $145,000. That is considerably below what maritime executives would make in the private sector, industry officials say.

And it’s below the $175,201 paid last year to Peter Hahn, former Seattle Department of Transportation director; the roughly $300,000 pay and benefits to Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl, or the half-million dollars or so paid to B.C. Ferries executives.

“They don’t pay enough to take the level of BS from the Legislature they get. It’s clear the job doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” said Darrell Bryan, vice president of Victoria Clipper, who served on the hiring advisory committee for the WSF director job.

Lawmakers are frequently demanding studies that devour staff time, Bryan said.

The state is attempting to improve the pay range in the second round, but it would be a modest 7 percent or so, Peterson said.

Generally speaking, she said state transportation workers earn a third less than comparable public sector employees.

Maritime officials say ferry workers from top to bottom tend to earn less than the private sector offers, making staffing a challenge. “To really get a professional mariner … they get paid more than the state pays,” said Alan Cote, president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union.

Capacci served in the Coast Guard, Alaska Marine Highway and B.C. Ferries before joining WSF in 2009.

In a letter to Peterson and Gov. Jay Inslee this month, five captains urged the state to pick Ladenburg as the better of the two finalists. They blamed Capacci for recent foibles — in particular for minimizing design flaws in three new 64-car, Kwa-di Tabil class vesselsthat leaned in the water.

After the agency took scorn for deploying the “I-Lean” class of boats, the M/V Salish, Kennewick and Chetzemoka were eventually ballasted to level, saving fuel, WSF says.

The letter claimed Capacci tried to reduce staffing “to save a few labor dollars,” which backfired in the form of staff shortages, a Coast Guard directive setting mandatory crew counts, and a $14.7 million loss.

On the other hand, Capacci was endorsed by a screening committee this spring that included two union leaders.

During a ferry-industry forum last fall, Capacci emphasized the ferry system deserves more credit for an on-time record of more than 90 percent. He said he looked forward to innovations, such as retrofitting a diesel ferry to run on cleaner liquefied natural gas.

The ferry system is also recovering two-thirds of operating cost through fares, more than twice what typical transit agencies recover.

Ladenburg, who now works as an attorney, readily admits he lacks marine experience. He said his focus would have been on fortifying the budget — for instance, persuading taxpayers and lawmakers in Wenatchee the ferry system is integral to the state’s economy. He didn’t care about the salary level.

“To me, it was because of the challenge,” he said. “It’s a question of whether I would get up in the morning and look forward to going to work.”

Greater funding could help replace a fleet that averaged 36 years of age as of 2010. Under Moseley, six ferries were built in the past six years, a start on the backlog.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said Ladenburg would have been a fine choice. “We need an executive to go in there and completely overhaul the headquarters, and establish a new working climate on the ferries,” he said.

For instance, Seaquist said, flawed dispatching systems, not the deck crews, were to blame for dozens of missed sailings the last few years.

Miscommunication was also a factor that made recruiting difficult.

Erickson said many of the 80 applications came from people seeking a clerical job, because the formal title is “Assistant Secretary” for ferries. One of the qualified candidates was a Danish ferry manager, who withdrew once he understood the pay range, Bryan said.

There are few ferry systems around the world as large as Washington State Ferries, and as politically visible.

Seaquist, a retired naval officer himself, said he hopes Ladenburg reapplies. Too late. Ladenburg says that to be passed over, then compete again, makes no sense.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom

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