The Port of Vancouver has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit wherein it admitted to violating open meetings laws while commissioners debated a lease for an oil terminal.
The payment, which will cover court costs and fees of Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center, is the final step in ending a lawsuit that began in 2013. The groups sued the port district after its governing board held closed-door meetings to discuss lease pricing for the then-proposed Vancouver Energy oil terminal.
“We think this is an important case, but it did not need to take this long,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “We’re glad that we’ll see more transparency and more open decision-making from public ports as a result of this case, but five years was not necessary for the port to acknowledge they violated the law.”
In March, the parties agreed the port would admit to violating the Washington Open Public Meetings Act during an unspecified number of executive session meetings it held between February and July 2013. The resolution came after a June 2017 state Supreme Court ruling that found the port went too far during executive sessions when discussing the minimum price for a real estate lease they’d offer Andeavor, at that time Tesoro Corp., and Savage Cos. — the two companies behind Vancouver Energy.
The Supreme Court also ruled that a government body may discuss a minimum price figure for the sale or lease of property in executive session, but the factors that determine the property’s value must be considered in an open meeting. That interpretation forced municipalities across the state to re-examine their efforts to maintain compliance with that exemption in the act.
The case was then sent back to Clark County Superior Court, where the parties settled.
“It is good to end the case,” said port spokeswoman Abbi Russell, adding that the port is comfortable with the settlement.
Russell said the port has taken “many steps” and implemented several procedures over the last five years to ensure it maintains compliance with the law.
Most of the major players in the port’s administration, including the CEO and two of three elected commissioners, have been replaced since the oil terminal was proposed.
VandenHeuvel said he’s optimistic that the port will be more transparent than it was in the past.
“We’re encouraged by the longer term planning process that’s going on at the port right now,” he said of the port’s ongoing strategic plan update. “I do think it’s going better and I think having the weight of Tesoro off the port’s back is an opportunity to look forward and think about the vision for the port’s future.”
In January, Gov. Jay Inslee rejected Vancouver Energy’s site application to build the oil terminal. Vancouver Energy and the port agreed to end the lease in February rather than making an appeal.