Six of seven candidates for Port of Vancouver commissioner weighed in on Monday on everything from a proposed oil transfer terminal and the contract that underpins it to public transparency and accountability in the port’s approach to making decisions.
Two of the candidates expressed opposition to building at the port what would be the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil-handling facility. Two voiced support for the project. Others saw it differently, emphasizing the need to focus on safety and questioning the port’s capacity to opt out of the oil-terminal lease it unanimously approved in 2013 with Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Companies, a transportation company.
The six candidates — Nick Ande, Bob Durgan, Peter Harrison, Bill Hughes, Eric LaBrant and Lisa Ross — made those and other remarks in fielding questions from members of The Columbian’s editorial board. A seventh candidate, Scott Dalesandro, did not attend the morning editorial board meeting.
The candidates are running to succeed Commissioner Nancy Baker, who is not seeking re-election to a third, six-year term as the District 2 representative on the port’s three-member board. In competing for the nonpartisan position, all seven candidates will appear on the Aug. 4 primary ballot. The top two vote-getters from the primary will move to the Nov. 3 general election. Only registered voters in District 2 are allowed to vote in the primary. In the general election, all voters in the entire port district may cast ballots.
The last time a Port of Vancouver election featured a contested race was in November 2007, according to the Clark County Elections Department.
‘Lining up in opposition’
Both Ande and LaBrant said they firmly oppose the oil terminal, which now is undergoing an environmental-impact analysis by the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
Ande, managing director of The Couve Group Inc., a marketing firm, said the project’s threats to the environment, public safety and future economic development outweigh its benefits. Businesses looking to locate here “don’t want to be in the industrial armpit” of the Northwest, said Ande, who’s managed political races for local Democratic candidates.
LaBrant, who works for a global freight firm in Portland and who heads the neighborhood association for Fruit Valley, which borders the port, said the port and Tesoro have been unwilling to work with him and others to mitigate the oil terminal’s impacts. “We have small businesses in downtown Vancouver lining up in opposition,” he said, “and it has nothing to do with safety or with the environment, and everything to do with their ability to attract customers.”
Ross, a certified public accountant, ran as a Republican last year in an unsuccessful bid to unseat incumbent state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. She said she will deem the oil terminal safe enough to be built at the port if the project wins approval from the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. “I support the oil terminal and the jobs that come with it,” she said. She added, “There’s been a lot of upgrading of the oil cars.”
Harrison, whose professional background includes work as a systems analyst addressing organizational and work flow needs, said “the oil terminal itself is probably going to be a pretty safe facility.” However, there have been a number of oil-train accidents, he said, and those accidents point to the need to update federal rail-safety regulations. “That’s where we should go,” Harrison said.
Hughes, a World War II veteran and former business owner and manager, ran unsuccessfully last year for a nonpartisan position on the Clark Public Utilities Board of Commissioners. “At first blush, I’m in favor of it,” Hughes said of the oil terminal. Although rails were built using wooden stilts decades ago, he said, he believes current plans include far sturdier designs.
Durgan, retired from Andersen Construction in Portland, where he spent many years as development services vice president, ran unsuccessfully for port commissioner in 2003. He said he “definitely would not have voted” for the oil terminal lease “as a reason to purchase the Alcoa site” — a reference to a former aluminum site now owned by the port. Durgan said he’s read the oil terminal lease and that he doesn’t see a way of canceling it “without putting people in jeopardy.”
Let ‘courts decide’
The candidates also addressed concerns about a lack of transparency in the port’s decision-making process. The port faces two lawsuits involving the state’s sunshine laws. One alleges the port violated the state’s open public meetings law by illegally excluding the public from some meetings about the oil terminal. Another accuses the port of breaching the state’s public records law by redacting parts of the oil terminal lease.
As to the meetings law complaint, Ross said she’s “going to wait and let the courts decide that.” She said she believes port commissioners, following the advice of their legal counsel, did not believe they were doing anything wrong.
LaBrant said state law is clear about the proper use of closed-door executive sessions and that he would “push back against” the port’s use of such private gatherings. LaBrant said he’d also seek an unredacted copy of the oil terminal lease.
Durgan said one-on-one meetings between the port’s CEO and commissioners about the oil terminal were “a very big no-no.” Harrison also questioned such meetings, asking why they weren’t stopped. He added that the port’s meetings “need to be more open.”
Ande said the port “needs to be a better neighbor” and that he would get out into the community, including places where people aren’t being heard. Hughes encouraged public attendance of the port’s twice-monthly regular public meetings. “Don’t be afraid to tell them what for,” he said.