Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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Port of Vancouver admits it violated meetings law

It asks court to rule against it for at least one session in 2013

By , Columbian staff writer

The Port of Vancouver is taking the unusual step of asking for a ruling against itself in a lawsuit challenging its past interpretation of the Washington Open Public Meetings Act.

In a motion for summary judgment filed Wednesday in Clark County Superior Court, port attorneys wrote, “The Port acknowledges that Riverkeeper is entitled to a declaration that the Port of Vancouver USA violated the OPMA during at least one of the executive sessions held between March 2013 and July 2013.”

The port is being sued by Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center, which allege it violated the Open Public Meetings Act when it discussed the minimum price for a real estate lease to the Vancouver Energy oil terminal during executive session.

The port’s move caught the plaintiffs off guard.

“We’re still evaluating next steps,” said Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel, who added that his organization hasn’t seen anyone else ask for a motion against themselves.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be reheard by Judge David Gregerson on Oct. 26.

In 2015, Gregerson ruled five of seven executive sessions the port held in 2013 were properly held when they discussed the minimum price of the lease they’d offer Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. — the two companies behind Vancouver Energy.

But in June, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed his ruling, opined on how the act applies to real estate pricing, offered guidance on public meetings and executive sessions and sent the case back to Gregerson’s court to be reheard based on their interpretation.

“We were acting in good faith and believed we were complying with the law when we held these executive sessions in 2013. But we now have, for the first time, interpretation and guidance from the courts on the timing of public meetings and executive sessions,” port CEO Julianna Marler said in a news release.

“Based on this new information, we have asked the Superior Court for a final determination on the executive sessions in question. We believe this is the right thing to do from a transparency and public stewardship standpoint.”

Port of Vancouver spokeswoman Abbi Russell said the port also wants to focus its time and energy on new and ongoing projects, rather than putting more time and energy into the lawsuit.

“We’ve been at this for four years and we could be looking at a couple more” if the suit continues, she said.

The port argues its motion wouldn’t affect the validity of the lease with Vancouver Energy. But it hopes the motion will hasten the proceedings and result in the case’s resolution by the end of the year.

VandenHeuvel said his organization is pleased the port has changed its policy around executive sessions, but his organization, which is an active opponent of the oil terminal, isn’t satisfied.

“This feels like it’s just for show and the citizens of Vancouver over many, many meetings explained to the port that it acted improperly, yet the port went forward with this lease.”

If built, the $210 million Vancouver Energy terminal would receive oil via 1.5-mile-long unit trains from North Dakota and transfer it into marine vessels in the Columbia River. The oil would then be shipped to refineries along the West Coast.

The terminal would be capable of transferring an average of 360,000 barrels of oil per day.

The project is currently being evaluated by the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say if the terminal will be approved.