Strictly Business: Is 5 better than 3 for the port?

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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Brooks Johnson

One of two things should have happened when Port of Vancouver Commissioners Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe both showed up to a labor roundtable earlier this month: One should have left, or one shouldn’t have spoken.

Instead the two saw the potential open meetings law violation hanging like a pi?ata and took a swing.

Since the port has only three commissioners, having two in one place at one time — without public notice — when speaking about port business can constitute a violation.

The state has a law to make sure public business is done in public. I’m kind of a fan of it.

But two commissioners can’t communicate with one another outside a properly noticed meeting. So how can they avoid bumping into each other and the apparent urge to talk business? It’s a small world, after all.

Still, there is an alternative to house arrest or vows of silence: Add more commissioners.

Just like the Clark County council moved from three to five elected representatives, state law allows port districts to have five commissioners as well. I’m not advocating for or against that change, but here’s how it would work.

The law appears simple — commissioners can put the issue before voters, or voters can through a petition. It would take 4,677 signatures to get the issue on the ballot. That’s the required 10 percent of the 46,767 people who voted in November’s port election that saw Eric LaBrant top Lisa Ross.

The two new commissioners could be at-large, each representing the whole port district, or five entirely new commissioner districts could be drawn. Given the port comprises just less than 300,000 people, either option could make sense.

It would cost about $90,000 a year to bring on new commissioners, given that each is paid about $45,000 in salary, per diem and benefits. (Benefits are about half of total compensation.) That’s insignificant, given the port’s $77 million budget, but it is taxpayer money.

Of all the state’s major ports, just Seattle and Tacoma have five commissioners. But Vancouver is the third-largest port in the state, as of last year, since we beat out the Port of Longview in tonnage and revenue. So it wouldn’t be a special case.

There are, of course, political repercussions with having two more commissioners or redrawing districts, but that’s not what this is about. Allowing commissioners to communicate outside of meetings can help a majority of them to avoid one another, to avoid breaking public meetings law, or help them build professional relationships.

But this opens another can of worms, because now commissioners can communicate directly but can’t pass information to a third. When a majority of commissioners know the same thing because one person told the next told the next, that’s called a serial meeting. It’s illegal under the Open Public Meetings Act. Don’t do it.

Squabbles over the public meetings law distract from real issues, but the public’s business needs to be public.