Editorial: Win for Open Government in WA

An unanimous decision from the state Supreme Court last week serves as a rebuke of the Port of Vancouver Commission and an affirmation that public agencies are, indeed, beholden to the public. In the process, the court defined a dereliction of duty by port commissioners and provided insight for this year’s election.

In a suit initially brought by conservation groups, the Supreme Court ruled that Port of Vancouver commissioners violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act in 2013 during discussions that led to a lease for an oil transfer terminal. The commission agreed to a deal with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. for the construction and operation of a terminal that could bring in up to 15 million gallons of crude each day and transfer the oil to marine vessels. The terminal, which would be the largest of its type in North America, is undergoing a state review that will be sent to the governor for approval or rejection.

Washington’s act governing public meetings dates to Watergate-era concern about government secrecy and has served the state well by holding elected officials accountable and reinforcing the public’s right to know what those officials are doing. As quoted by the Supreme Court, the preamble of the legislation says, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” In chastising the Vancouver commissioners, Justice Charles Wiggins emphasized the damage done to “transparency and popular sovereignty by approving expansive discussion in executive session of matters squarely in the public interest.”

The commissioners held talks about the terminal behind closed doors, ignoring their duty to the public. It was an abdication of responsibility and was offensive to those who believe publicly funded organizations run by publicly elected officials must never ignore the “public” portion of their duties. When questions were raised about the secrecy of the negotiations, commissioners held a public meeting in which they doubled down on their mistake by rubber-stamping approval of the terminal for a second time. Read more…