An unanimous decision from the state Supreme Court last week serves as a rebuke of the Port of Vancouver Commission and an affirmation that public agencies are, indeed, beholden to the public. In the process, the court defined a dereliction of duty by port commissioners and provided insight for this year’s election.
In a suit initially brought by conservation groups, the Supreme Court ruled that Port of Vancouver commissioners violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act in 2013 during discussions that led to a lease for an oil transfer terminal. The commission agreed to a deal with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. for the construction and operation of a terminal that could bring in up to 15 million gallons of crude each day and transfer the oil to marine vessels. The terminal, which would be the largest of its type in North America, is undergoing a state review that will be sent to the governor for approval or rejection.
Washington’s act governing public meetings dates to Watergate-era concern about government secrecy and has served the state well by holding elected officials accountable and reinforcing the public’s right to know what those officials are doing. As quoted by the Supreme Court, the preamble of the legislation says, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” In chastising the Vancouver commissioners, Justice Charles Wiggins emphasized the damage done to “transparency and popular sovereignty by approving expansive discussion in executive session of matters squarely in the public interest.”
The commissioners held talks about the terminal behind closed doors, ignoring their duty to the public. It was an abdication of responsibility and was offensive to those who believe publicly funded organizations run by publicly elected officials must never ignore the “public” portion of their duties. When questions were raised about the secrecy of the negotiations, commissioners held a public meeting in which they doubled down on their mistake by rubber-stamping approval of the terminal for a second time.
Regardless of how one feels about the terminal proposal — The Columbian has editorially opposed it — the Supreme Court decision is a victory for the people of Clark County and, indeed, all of Washington. Expecting public officials to follow state law is not a matter of partisan debate on a particular issue; it is a matter of recognizing that open-meeting laws are essential to a properly functioning democracy. The Port of Vancouver commissioners at that time violated the public trust in a most egregious fashion that highlighted the port’s culture of secrecy.
Since then, one of the three commissioners involved has opted to not seek re-election, and a second, Brian Wolfe, is not seeking re-election this fall. Which brings us to this year’s election. While questions about the terminal will be essential for candidates seeking the position, so too will questions about transparency and appropriate processes, as well as questions about the need to expose decision-making to the disinfectant that is sunshine. Those questions, in fact, should be asked of all candidates for public office, recognizing that a humble deference to citizens is a crucial part of being a public servant.
The Supreme Court decision overturned a 2015 ruling by Clark County Superior Court Judge David Gregerson, but did not weigh in on the validity of the lease agreement. It sent the case back to the lower court to be reheard. Most important, it reiterated the role the public must play in discussions of public matters — and that is a victory for the people of Washington.