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News / Business / Clark County Business

Vancouver port, groups reach agreement in open meetings suit

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 20, 2018, 10:59am

The Port of Vancouver and three environmental groups have reached an agreement to end a lawsuit that alleged the port violated open meeting laws when it held closed-door sessions to discuss lease pricing for the Vancouver Energy oil terminal.

To end the lawsuit, the port and Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center struck a stipulated agreement that the port will admit some executive session meetings held between February and July 2013 violated the Washington Open Public Meetings Act, based on a ruling made by the state Supreme Court in June. The port will also pay “reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs” and Riverkeeper will drop the lawsuit. The two parties will negotiate the amount the port will pay.

The settlement won’t resolve the number of port meetings that violated the Open Public Meetings Act, originally a key sticking point in the lawsuit.

Since 2013, the environmental groups accused the port of violating the act in at least seven executive session meetings when it discussed the minimum price for a real estate lease to the oil terminal in 2013. In June, the Supreme Court clarified how the Open Public Meetings Act applies to real estate pricing discussions and it kicked the case back down to Clark County Superior Court. In August, the port filed a motion for summary judgment against itself, claiming it violated the law during “at least one executive session.”

“The outcome today is virtually the same as we were back in August,” said port spokeswoman Abbi Russell. “Honestly, it’s good to come to resolution. We did a lot of work back in 2013 and then after 2017 to improve our processes and comply with the Open Public Meetings Act. This is essentially the final piece in closing the Vancouver Energy project.”

Although the settlement doesn’t resolve exactly how many times the port violated the law, Miles Johnson, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said it wasn’t worth continuing the lawsuit in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“It’s definitely a victory for Riverkeeper and for government transparency in Washington,” he said. “This settlement does contain an admission the port repeatedly violated the OPMA, but the Supreme Court decision is the real victory here. When you read the Supreme Court’s decision, it pretty clearly explains several instances where the port went wrong.”

Riverkeeper sued in 2013 shortly after the port signed the lease for the proposed terminal. In 2015, Clark County Superior Court Judge David Gregerson ruled five of seven executive sessions the port held in 2013 were done so properly when they discussed the minimum price of the lease they’d offer Andeavor, at that time Tesoro Corp., and Savage Cos. — the two companies behind Vancouver Energy.

In June 2017, the state Supreme Court reversed Gregerson’s decision and ruled the port went too far when discussing the minimum price for a real estate lease to the Vancouver Energy oil terminal during executive session. It also opined that a government body may discuss a minimum price figure for the sale or lease of property in executive session, but the factors that set the property’s value must be considered in an open meeting. That August, the port filed a motion for summary judgment against itself, acknowledging it violated the law, based on the court’s interpretation.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Eric D. Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, said the ruling offers important guidance for government bodies on what can and can’t be discussed behind closed doors.

“It’s the first case that’s given us guidance on that particular (exemption) in the Open Public Meetings Act,” he said in June.

Port officials said they have taken steps, first in 2013, then again after the court’s 2017 ruling, to improve its processes to comply with the act.

“As a key player in the region’s economic vitality, we recognize the importance of clear and transparent processes when municipalities make decisions that affect our communities,” port CEO Julianna Marler said in a news release. “When the Supreme Court provided its new interpretation, we worked with others in our industry to continue to comply. That will be the case going forward, as well, and we’ll continue to look for ways to keep our community engaged and informed.”

In January, Gov. Jay Inslee rejected the company’s site application to build the oil terminal. Rather than appeal the decision, Vancouver Energy and the port agreed to end the lease at the end of February.

Columbian staff writer