State auditor to review port's handling of oil terminal meeting

Commissioners barred public from discussion

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Executive sessions reference guide

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The Washington State Auditor's Office will examine the Port of Vancouver's decision to bar the public from a discussion of a controversial oil terminal as part of its next regular review of the port in April 2014. Meanwhile, the port says it has employed a new procedure to ensure it complies with the state's open public meetings law.

The investigation into the port's compliance with open public meetings law will occur during "our upcoming annual financial, single …and accountability audits of the port," Thomas Shapley, deputy director of communications for the auditor's office, said Monday.

The review by the auditor's office — the official watchdog of state and local governments — is in response to a citizen hotline complaint filed on Aug. 8. That complaint -- based on a July 31 story in The Columbian that revealed apparent violations of open public meetings law by port commissioners -- concerns the questionable use of executive session by Commissioners Jerry Oliver, Brian Wolfe and Nancy Baker. The July 22 executive session occurred during a special public meeting to discuss a lease with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. The companies want to build an oil-by-rail operation to handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day.

Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager, said port officials have talked to the auditor's office about the review. "We're very comfortable with that," Wagner said. "That's appropriate."

In the meantime, the port, at the behest of Executive Director Todd Coleman, has adopted a reference guide to ensure the proper use of executive sessions. The document, designed as a checklist, includes a description of the limited purposes for which the port may use executive sessions and how they are to be incorporated into regular and special public meetings.

It was included in commissioners' agenda packets on Aug. 8, Wagner said, and used for the first time during the commissioners' Aug. 13 regular public hearing. Wagner said the port put the guide into effect after The Columbian questioned the port about apparent meetings-law violations.

Private discussion

On the evening of July 22, during a special public meeting about the proposed oil-terminal lease, port Commission President Oliver twice told a room overflowing with oil facility opponents that he, Baker and Wolfe would discuss their public testimony in private -- an apparent breach of open public meetings law, according to experts.

Oliver later said he misspoke and should have cited "real estate" as the reason for excluding the public and convening an executive session. The only real estate issue commissioners were allowed to discuss in private is related strictly to price, according to Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General's Office. Executive sessions -- exemptions to open public meetings law allowed only for narrow purposes -- are not to be used for discussing public testimony.

There's also an issue of how the port incorporated the executive session into its public meeting. The law requires elected officials to tell the public how long an executive session will last. The port failed to do that, with Oliver saying on July 22 that "we're now going to recess into executive session for a minimum 15 minutes … we'll review your comments and discuss them."

Another misstep: The port closed what began as a public meeting with the executive session. Elected officials aren't allowed to end a public meeting in secrecy.

Under the port's new reference guide, the commission president, before moving into executive session, "must publicly announce the purpose for excluding the public and the time when the executive session will conclude."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com