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May 26, 2022

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Woodland, Port of Woodland prepare to settle suit

Dispute began after city wanted to bill port for tenants’ unpaid utilities


LONGVIEW — The Port of Woodland is preparing to settle its lawsuit against the city of Woodland over a change to how the city handles utility billing.

The port filed the suit in June in an attempt to prevent the city from implementing a policy that would bill building owners for utilities instead of tenants. Superior Court Judge Gary Bashor issued a preliminary injunction in November to allow the port’s lawsuit to advance.

The settlement agreement was on the agenda for Woodland City Council’s Dec. 20 meeting. After a scheduled executive session, the council may authorize Mayor Will Finn to sign off on the settlement.

In the proposed settlement, the city agreed to return to providing direct utility billing for 10 port tenants. The direct billing will apply for as long as the businesses occupy those “specific premises” at the port. The Port of Woodland agreed to rescind any public records requests it submitted to the city over the past four months.

With the agreement, neither the city nor the port admit to any liability, wrongdoing or legal violations.

Port of Woodland Director Jennifer Wray-Keene and the port’s attorney declined to comment Monday.

The Woodland City Council passed the resolution changing the utility billing system in April, partially as a way to hold property owners more accountable for their tenants’ unpaid utilities. Public Works Department Director Tracy Coleman said the city had $187,000 in overdue bills and needed to recoup those balances. No business at the port had an unpaid account when the resolution was put into place.

The port argued the resolution was unconstitutional if it applied to the port, as covering the utility payments for a renting business could count as a public entity providing an illegal loan. The city said that, even if the bill passed through the port first, the businesses still would have to pay for their own utilities or risk eviction.

Bashor’s comments at previous court hearings largely focused on Woodland’s ability to implement changes to its utility practices. At hearings in August and September, Bashor pushed the city’s attorney to explain how the new billing system related to the explicit and implicit contracts that already were in place with the port.

“What the ordinance does is retroactively modify contracts. That’s what I am trying to understand the basis of— where does the city get the power to void that,” Bashor said at an August hearing.

The preliminary injunction largely was a moot point even when it was issued. Woodland verbally agreed to keep up direct billing to the port’s tenants and maintain the status quo before the court ruling made the decision binding.

Neither the preliminary injunction nor the current settlement agreement is meant to address the legal merits of the port’s lawsuit. The settlement also has no effect on how billing works for the residential and commercial renters in Woodland.

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