In Our View: Port Tries Do-over

Reopening discussion on oil terminal calls for deliberate approach this time

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There still are many hurdles to be cleared and many questions to be answered regarding a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, but officials are attempting to take a step in the right direction — by stepping backward. The question is whether they will go far enough.

Port officials have announced that they will reopen discussion Tuesday morning about a deal with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil-by-rail terminal that would handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In July, Port commissioners unanimously approved a 10-year, $45 million lease with the companies. The plan would bring oil to the port by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. The oil would be stored at the port and transferred to ships headed to U.S. refineries.

According to Tesoro-Savage, the project would generate about 250 temporary construction jobs and 120 full-time jobs. But there remain many reasons to oppose the project, primarily environmental concerns about the transportation of crude oil near population centers and alongside the Columbia River.

Those concerns are valid, yet they are not the reason port commissioners are reopening the discussion. Part of the impetus behind new talks is a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups asserting that commissioners violated public meetings law when they initially approved the plan. On July 22, commissioners heard public testimony, then held an executive session that excluded the public from witnessing the discussions — apparently in violation of the law. The following morning, commissioners proceeded to vote in favor of the terminal plan. The Columbian reported the violation on July 31, and environmental groups later cited that reporting in filing their lawsuit.

That left port commissioners in a bind. After consulting with other officials, including the state Auditor's Office, about the proper course of action, they opted to reopen the discussions. Port Executive Director Todd Coleman said last week that officials were "confident that our use of executive session was appropriate. However, because concerns have been raised, and because we're committed to transparent public process, the port will be presenting the lease to the commissioners during Tuesday's meeting for deliberation and a new vote."

Therein lies the problem: calling for transparency at this juncture is akin to trying to un-ring a bell. If commissioners acted illegally — even if it was inadvertent — then made up their minds and voted, calling for a redo does little to re-establish public trust in the system. And if the port truly is confident in its actions the first time around, then there should be no reason to reopen deliberations. In reality, the port has put itself in a bit of a no-win situation. Experts tell The Columbian that reopening deliberations will not absolve the port from the assertions made in the lawsuit.

In short, there are two lessons to be learned from the Catch-22 port officials have created. One is that, in a quest for transparency, governmental entities should be required to record executive sessions; that way, if a legal question ensues, the truth will be documented — and truth is the sole objective of open government. The other is that port officials must delay their re-vote on the proposal. While commissioners might or might not change their minds over time, by immediately re-approving the plan they would be thumbing their nose at due process and saying, "There, are you happy now?" to their critics. If port officials are going to reopen the issue for deliberation, then they should be deliberative, not merely rubber-stamp their earlier decision.

Even if passed by the Port of Vancouver, the oil terminal faces several hurdles at the state level prior to approval. But commissioners managed to add a pothole of their own making to make the journey even bumpier.