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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Port of Vancouver candidates clash on transparency

Ross claims it is a 'primary government,' allowing exemptions; rival, experts disagree

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: October 19, 2015, 6:28pm
5 Photos
Eric LaBrant, left, and Lisa Ross are running for Port of Vancouver commissioner. Election Day is Nov.
Eric LaBrant, left, and Lisa Ross are running for Port of Vancouver commissioner. Election Day is Nov. 3 Photo Gallery

With campaign mailers and public statements flying, it’s likely that Port of Vancouver voters know where Eric LaBrant and Lisa Ross — candidates for the District 2 seat on the port commission — stand on whether the port should become home to the nation’s largest rail-to-ship oil transfer terminal.

LaBrant opposes it for public safety, economic development and other reasons. Ross backs it for more jobs, energy independence and other reasons. Yet, other issues divide the candidates in the Nov. 3 general election as they compete to succeed Commissioner Nancy Baker, who is not seeking re-election to a six-year term on the three-member port commission.

Take, for instance, transparency in the port’s decision-making process.

The port’s current commissioners and administration have come under public criticism and litigation for their use of closed-door meetings to discuss a lease for the oil terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos.

Both candidates discussed the transparency issue during a meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board in September and, earlier this month, during a forum held by the League of Women Voters of Clark County.


• The Young Democrats at Washington State University Vancouver will convene a town hall debate between Port of Vancouver commission candidates Eric LaBrant and Lisa Ross. The debate — 6:30 p.m. Monday in Room 105 of the Engineering and Computer Science Building — will be moderated by Mark Stephan, public affairs professor for WSUV.

The debate, co-sponsored by the Associated Students of WSUV, is open to the public.

• For more information about the candidates’ fundraising, endorsements and stands on the issues, visit an earlier Columbian story on the candidates.  

• The most recent filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission show LaBrant’s campaign has raised a total of $227,202.35, most of which came in the form of in-kind contributions. Records show Ross’ campaign has raised $50,491.49, the bulk of which are cash contributions. 

In both cases, LaBrant was critical of the port’s handling of closed-door executive sessions, which are allowed by the state’s open public meetings law but only for limited purposes. “We, as taxpayers, have the right to know what we’re paying for, what we’re on the hook for,” he said in arguing for more transparency.

Both times, Ross asserted that the Port of Vancouver is a “primary government.” That designation allows the port to meet privately sometimes to protect trade secrets and other information, she said at the League of Women Voters forum. It also means the port doesn’t “have to answer to any other government,” and allows the port “to move quicker than other governments without being encumbered by a lot of the laws and encumbrances of other organizations,” she told The Columbian’s editorial board.

However, there’s no such thing as a port being a primary government in the state of Washington, according to the Washington Public Ports Association, which promotes the interests of ports.

“I’ve not heard that phrase,” said Eric Johnson, executive director for the ports association. “That’s a new one to me.” He said public ports are special purpose districts, along with school, hospital and library districts, that are local governments. “We’re subject to the same general set of laws as all local governments,” Johnson said.

In an email to The Columbian, Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State’s office, said he could not locate the term “primary government” anywhere “in our state constitution, RCWs (Revised Code of Washington) or WACs (Washington Administrative Code).”

In an email to The Columbian, Ross said primary government “is a technical term created by the Government Accounting Standards Board” that involves “who gets audited according to federal law.”

In her email, she included an online link to the Michigan Department of Treasury that includes definitions of primary government. She also wrote: “I did not say (or mean to say) that the laws do not apply to the port. Just that not having to answer financially to another government or elected officials allows the port the flexibility to get what needs to be done done quicker than having to request approval from the legislature for expenditures, for example. Of course, I realize that state and federal law applies to the port. So do the laws protecting interstate commerce.”

Addressing the transparency issue during the League of Women Voters event, LaBrant said the “first step to finding a solution is admitting that you have a problem.” He added, “It’s a fair assessment to say, regardless of how you feel about the port operations overall, that there have been some questions raised and there may be some damage to trust right now.”

During the League event, LaBrant and Ross also differed on the impact that having three port commissioners has on the port’s governance.

“It is difficult working with other commissioners because it is a board of three,” Ross said, noting that two commissioners makes a quorum. “So you really can’t work with other commissioners. The moment you start working with other commissioners it’s a public meeting.”

She said “it’s much better if you have five or seven (commissioners), because … at least you could say hello to people.”

LaBrant said the “whole purpose of having (the state’s open public meetings law) is to draw those discussions into the open, so that when you are talking with your fellow commissioners it’s not behind closed doors.”

He added, “Maybe it’s inconvenient, but that’s why we have that law.”

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter