The policy and political differences between Eric LaBrant and Lisa Ross — candidates for Port of Vancouver commissioner — probably couldn’t get any more glaring.
The top two vote-getters in an August primary election that swarmed with seven candidates are now competing to succeed Commissioner Nancy Baker in the November general election. Baker decided against seeking re-election to a third, six-year term on the port’s three-member board.
At stake on the Nov. 3 ballot is a shot at helping lead a powerful port that manages roughly 2,100 acres for industrial and marine development. That leadership role includes oversight of the port’s CEO, Todd Coleman, and of the port’s $80.72 million budget.
As evidenced by their joint interview last week with The Columbian’s editorial board, LaBrant and Ross offer starkly contrasting views of how they would approach the job. While they both touted their professional and civic experiences as reasons for voters to select them, the candidates’ remarks also underscored a sharp division about what needs to happen at the port.
LaBrant called for change.
The “broad array of candidates that we saw before the primary signals that voters are ready for a change,” he said, “that it needs to be not just business as usual.”
Port of Vancouver candidatesEric LaBrant • Age: 34. • Education: Fort Vancouver High School graduate; currently in final semester of earning bachelor of science in business management at Western Governors University. • Occupation: Collections specialist at UTi, a global freight forwarding company. • Website: www.ericforport.comLisa Ross • Age: 48. • Education: Robert E. Lee High School graduate; bachelor of arts in philosophy with minor in accounting and concentrations in English, biology and math, University of Alabama; bachelor of science in accounting, Western Governors University; master of business administration in management and strategy, WGU-Washington. • Occupation: Business consultant at Lisa Phifer Ross, MBA, CPA • Website: LisaRossforthePort.nationbuilder.com
By contrast, Ross spoke highly of how things stand.
The port is something to be proud of, she said, “because it does amazing work there that is necessary for our country and the world and our area.”
LaBrant and Ross also disagreed about everything from the port’s governance and economic-development priorities to the financial capacity of the port to cut its property-tax levy.
Not surprisingly, the proposal by Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Cos., a transportation company — in partnership as Vancouver Energy — to build the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil-transfer terminal at the port popped up during the editorial board gathering.
LaBrant opposes the project. Ross favors it.
The candidates’ campaign funding and endorsements only serve to set them further apart, according to state public disclosure records and statements by the candidates themselves.
So far, Ross has raised $24,207.58, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Ross’ campaign contributors include: Clark County Councilor David Madore, $11,000; NuStar Political Action Committee, $1,500 (NuStar wants to convert its existing facility at the port to an oil-by-rail terminal); Tesoro Companies Inc., $1,000; BNSF Railway, $500; and Vancouver port Commissioner Jerry Oliver, $250.
LaBrant’s haul so far: $14,934.07.
LaBrant’s campaign contributors include the local unit of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, $1,500; James Johnson, a Vancouver resident who heads Portland-based Tripwire, a software security company, $1,000; Karen Hengerer, a retired Vancouver resident and critic of the port, $500; Vancouver City Councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, $300; and former Vancouver mayor Royce Pollard, $250.
As to endorsements, Ross said her backers include The Vancouver Business Journal, Clark County Republican Party and Republican state Reps. Liz Pike, Brandon Vick and Paul Harris. LaBrant said his endorsers include the local firefighters union, the local Longshore union, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Pollard and former Vancouver city council member Pat Jollota. The Columbian has not yet made an endorsement in the general election race.
The following discussion of issues has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Port commissioners Baker, Oliver and Brian Wolfe voted unanimously, in 2013, to approve a lease with Tesoro and Savage. The companies want to receive about 360,000 barrels of crude per day at the port.
The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is examining the environmental impacts of the proposal. The council will eventually make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who gets the final say over whether the project gets built.
Ross and LaBrant were asked whether they would have approved the lease had they been on the port’s board some two years ago. “Absolutely,” Ross said, “I would have signed that lease.”
“No,” LaBrant said. “We didn’t have enough information.”
Both candidates took up the issue of what other projects they would support if the oil terminal, proposed at the port’s Terminal 5, fails to win state approval — including whether they would back a coal-handling facility.
“Do we want to turn Vancouver into that?” LaBrant said of the possibility of a coal terminal. “I would say no to that, too.”
Ross took a different position: “I would not exclude coal from the conversation.”
LaBrant said the Columbia River Economic Development Council has eyed such sectors as advanced manufacturing and aerospace “and the export of American-manufactured goods. The Port of Vancouver is really well set up for that.”
Ross said she supports the jobs the oil terminal would bring. “We need all kinds of jobs in our economy,” she said. “We can’t just have high-tech, we can’t just have low-tech.”
LaBrant said repeated oil train spills and explosions have shown the oil terminal proposed by Tesoro and Savage poses both environmental and economic threats.
“I consider myself pro-jobs, and so I’m opposed to the oil terminal,” he said.
As she’s campaigned, Ross said, she’s heard concerns, including about exploding oil trains and about getting away from using oil. However, she said, “I think a lot of that is based on misinformation, and the idea that if something is not safe … we have to throw up our arms and say, ‘Oh my God … what can we do?’ Well, we can slow the trains down, we can make the rails better, we can do all sorts of things. We can make the tank cars better.”
Port of Vancouver leaders have come under public criticism and litigation for their use of closed-door executive sessions, including to discuss the proposed oil terminal lease with Tesoro and Savage.
Ross and LaBrant were asked whether they have concerns about it and, if so, how they would work to change it.
Ross said she would learn the rules and get “them down pat to where I feel comfortable.” However, she said, “I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll have to rely on legal advice in some situations, I’m sure.”
She said the port posts its meeting agendas on its website, has been promoting its meetings more and also is “tweeting quite a bit more” — a reference to social media — “and I would consider moving one of the (port commission’s two) meetings per month to an evening meeting, so that we could get more participation from the residents and voters.”
LaBrant said the state’s open public meetings law allows only “a certain number of exceptions,” including, for example, to privately discuss a minimum real estate price, and personnel and litigation matters. The port has “tried to put a lot (of its discussions) … under that minimum real estate price umbrella, to where almost anything that could even remotely affect that minimum real estate price is getting under there.”
Potential port tenants have paid staff to advocate for their interests, “and that’s important,” LaBrant said, “but, again, the responsibility of those commissioners is to advocate for us and advocate for both the economic well-being and the overall livability of the community that funds it, that pays for the port.”
The Port of Vancouver collects roughly $10 million annually in property taxes as part of its overall mix of revenues.
If elected, Ross said, she would seek to cut the levy “to half of that, maybe $5 million,” because the port is profitable.
Although “certain revenue bonds” are secured by the port’s property-tax levy, Ross said, “one of those is going to be paid off, and so we will have less to have to bond.”
“I don’t know that that’s actually a possibility,” LaBrant said. “Those tax revenues are encumbered by bonds, so the port has taken out debt that essentially requires us to continue collecting that until those are paid off.”
Longer-term, LaBrant said, it might be worth considering, “but without defaulting on a large amount of debt, I’m not sure that’s actually a real possibility.”