After months of public criticism over approving a lease for an oil terminal, the Port of Vancouver’s leaders on Tuesday showed a new sensitivity to barbs directed at the port by its critics.
Before the open public forum portion at the port commission’s regular public meeting, Commission President Nancy Baker warned that people would be asked to leave if they make personal attacks or criticisms of elected commissioners or port staff. While the port has appreciated public comments over the past two or more years, Baker said, public behavior during the last few meetings has been “disturbing and inappropriate to me.”
Critics did not hold back after Baker’s remarks, with tense exchanges following the commissioner’s warning. The flare-ups underscored the ongoing tension over the port commission’s decision, in 2013, to unanimously approve a lease for what would be the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil transfer terminal.
Baker’s comments raised a red flag for Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State. Harshly criticizing public bodies and government officials is “what free speech in a democracy includes,” he said in a phone interview requested by The Columbian.
Meanwhile, a representative of Taxpayers for a Responsible Public Port — a political action committee calling on the port to be more transparent — urged commissioners to use open public meetings to discuss any changes to the oil terminal lease and any modifications to revenues the port anticipates receiving from the project.
The port has kept from public review “critical elements” of its lease with Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Cos., a transportation company, said Ted Gathe, a member of the Taxpayers group and a retired Vancouver city attorney. Those elements include the deadline by which the companies must secure construction permits. If the companies don’t meet the deadline, the port could opt out of the contract.
Port documents obtained by Columbia Riverkeeper, an opponent of the oil terminal, suggest the permit deadline will be Aug. 1, 2016, which is 36 months after the lease’s effective date. Gathe said the Taxpayers group joins Columbia Riverkeeper in urging the port to openly discuss any changes to the lease, in light of both the estimated summer 2016 deadline and the possibility the companies won’t meet it.
Gathe said he’s not aware of any exemptions under state law that would allow the port to make such lease modifications “without a meeting conducted before the public.” Gathe also said that port budget documents obtained by the Taxpayers group show the port anticipates receiving some $6.7 million in revenue from Tesoro and Savage in 2016. Given the lengthy state and federal reviews of the proposed oil terminal, and the possibility of legal appeals, Gathe said, the companies aren’t likely to come through with that revenue. In any case, he said, any discussion of changing that payment “needs to be done in an open public meeting, as well.”
Port officials did not specifically respond to Gathe’s comments, although one commissioner asked him to restate the Taxpayer group’s name.
‘No applause, please’
Before the open forum part of the meeting, Baker told the audience that “no personal attacks or criticisms of commissioners or port staff will be tolerated. No applause, please. If we cannot abide by those rules you will be asked to leave.”
Then several of the port’s critics spoke. Although the port has done some positive projects, said Linda Armstrong, an opponent of the oil terminal, “you crossed over the line balancing jobs with environmental concerns.” She criticized the port for excluding the public from the oil terminal decision. Naming port CEO Todd Coleman, Armstrong referred to private meetings between the chief executive and commissioners.
In the interest of transparency, Armstrong said, will the public receive a report about Coleman’s recent trip to Texas to have “private meetings” with BNSF Railway? “That’s exactly what I was talking about,” Baker replied. “We are not going to deal with any comments about private meetings of individuals.”
Later in the meeting, Coleman said the public could consult the minutes of the port’s May 12 meeting to get his report on his trip to Texas or review the discussion on CVTV.
At one point, Don Orange, a small-business owner in Vancouver and opponent of the oil terminal, told commissioners that people take the oil terminal deal “very personally” and that “we feel like you’re shoving this terminal down our throat.” When the newspaper accuses you of “doing secret backroom deals,” Orange added, “don’t take it personally, fix it.” “Thank you,” Baker replied.
“Well, thank you,” Orange replied. “Can you do something about it?”
“We think we have, Don,” said Commissioner Brian Wolfe.
“We know you have,” Orange replied, “and it hurts.”
Quoting from a letter the port received from a Vancouver couple, Commissioner Jerry Oliver said the couple expressed support for the port and wrote that opponents of the oil terminal do not “represent the whole community.”
Honig, the spokesman for the ACLU of Washington State, said that while governments may bar conduct that makes it impossible to conduct public business, such as screaming or “going way over your time limit,” they may not forbid people from harshly criticizing public bodies or staff.
Free speech in a democracy entails government officials feeling uncomfortable with people who are upset and who specifically call them out, Honig said. If the port ever attempts to implement a formal rule against harsh remarks or evicts someone for delivering such criticism, he said, “we would certainly want to hear about that.”