The photographer from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel wanted a picture of the Christmas tree gracing the Port Everglades Authority's reception area. ''Why?" wondered the puzzled port public relations manager. The photographer shrugged. "Something about some stolen ornaments."

And so it goes these days at the embattled port authority in southeastern Florida, where the 1989 holiday season had all the merriment of a dirge.It only takes something as trivial as one missing box of tree ornaments - either misplaced or stolen - to merit yet another story of alleged mismanagement at Port Everglades ever since the port authority announced this summer it would return to the county tax rolls after a six-year absence.

The port's image as one run by a gang of inept or perhaps even corrupt officials is "unfair and untrue," said Joel Alesi, executive director of the port authority.

Mr. Alesi has claimed the image was created by the local newspapers, primarily the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald, which not only are locked in a heated battle for circulation and advertising supremacy in Broward County but also have long advocated dismantling the port authority and putting the port under control of the county commission.

But both newspapers have documented serious problems at the part - far more serious than Christmas tree ornaments. Most port authority staff members, including Mr. Alesi, and port commissioners concede mistakes have been made in terms of spending on questionable items, and they pledge the port authority will do its best to ensure the mistakes aren't repeated.

On closer inspection, however, many of the so-called extravagances can be justified as legitimate business expenses for a port authority charged with being an economic catalyst, not a filler of potholes.

Since the first of the year, the port's standing has been strengthened. State legislators from Broward County, Fla., told officials from the Broward city of Hallandale to forget about Hallandale's request to abolish the port authority. Legislators flatly rejected the notion. In addition, the port received a positive financial audit from Ernst & Young for fiscal year 1989, which ended Sept. 30.

The audit turned up no irregularities. While the document said the authority's finances and accounting methods were solid, the accounting firm suggested the port strengthen its internal control over expenditures.

The port itself is not out of the woods yet, however. Everglades officials are still awaiting the outcome of both a state audit and a Federal Bureau of Investigation check of its bond dealings. Dave Miller, spokesman for the Everglades port, said Monday, "We are not aware of any investigation by the FBI and have not been approached by federal authorities. If we were, we would cooperate in every way."

The major mistake committed by the port authority, insiders say, was in not using some common sense and tightening their belts when the commission and staff knew they would have to return to the tax rolls.

Now the port business community fears the primarily elected commissioners may go too far to the other extreme and start slashing costs solely for political expediency.

For instance, the port authority, which recently fired four mid-level managers and eight other employees, took the annual Christmas party away from an already demoralized staff.

That may save the port authority from still more ravaging in the newspapers, but it will only save a few hundred dollars, said Margaret Collins, director of the Port Everglades Association, a collection of about 80 port-related businesses.

Of more concern to Ms. Collins is the pledge made by Betsy Krant, the new port authority chairwoman who is up for re-election to the commission this year, to get the port off the tax rolls in 1990.

There's no way the port authority can complete its ambitious five-year expansion program without continued tax revenue, Ms. Collins insisted.

Ms. Krant strongly disagreed. For one thing, she said in a recent interview in her office in the port administration building, about 90 percent of the Southport container complex will be funded this year out of bond proceeds, port revenue and tax monies.

An operating Southport will enhance the port authority's revenue, thereby decreasing the need for outside funding sources, she said.

Also, Ms. Krant continued, there's a good chance the state General Assembly will approve legislation in the spring to establish a revolving $20 million to $30 million trust fund from which Florida's deepwater ports can draw matching

funds to assist with their facility expansion and infrastructure improvement needs.

The port authority also is looking into ways to boost private sector partnerships as a means to reduce the port's costs, Mr. Alesi pointed out.

Mr. Alesi denied the port's massive expansion is too much too soon. Although the estimated cost has been slashed from the initial $300 million down to about $200 million, primarily by eliminating planned land acquisitions, Mr. Alesi said there were no wish items in the original program.

A number of ocean carriers are forming decisions now on which ports to call in the years ahead so "a window in the market exists now," Mr. Alesi said.