Federal court judge rules against ports in suit over open meetings

By John Gillie, December 3, 2014, The News Tribune

Even as an Olympia open meetings advocate posted a win in federal court, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle once again will meet behind closed doors Wednesday (Dec. 3) to discuss their proposed operating alliance.


U.S. District Judge James L. Robart ruled late last week that federal court was the wrong forum in which to decide whether the two port commissions violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. At issue are a series of private meetings the two port commissions held jointly to discuss a possible alliance.


Arthur West, an open government advocate from Olympia, last fall filed a civil suit in King County Superior Court asking a state judge to declare that those meetings violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Port attorneys sought to have the case removed to federal court.


Judge Robart ruled that the suit did not present a proper federal question to be decided in a federal court. West contends the two commissions violated the state law in meeting confidentially to discuss the proposed alliance because state law has no exceptions to its open meetings rule that would apply to such discussions.


Port attorneys had argued that the meetings could legally be private because they were conducted under the authority of the Federal Maritime Commission which granted anti-trust immunity for the two ports to hold joint discussions. Federal law provides that minutes of such meetings are confidential, thus port attorneys told commissioners that the meetings too could be private.


The two commissions have scheduled a confidential joint meeting for 8 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the alliance.


“I’m very happy that the federal court has ruled in our favor,” said West. “I think the judge recognized the ports’ move for what it was, a delaying tactic.”


The two port governing bodies do plan a public study session following the confidential meeting. That public study session begins at 9 a.m. at the Fabulich Center, Room 104 at 3600 Port of Tacoma Road. That meeting’s agenda includes reports from Port of Tacoma Chief Executive Officer John Wolfe and Port of Seattle Deputy CEO Kurt Beckett discussing the progress in planning the alliance since it was announced early in the fall.


The interlocal agreement the two ports filed with the Federal Maritime Commission to begin a deeper exploration of the alliance took effect Monday after a 45-day review and comment period passed without significant objections.


The two ports plan to present a much more detailed agreement to the FMC in March.


The two port commissions have held a series of public town hall meetings in both King and Pierce counties to explain the proposed alliance to citizens.


The next of those public meetings is set for Wednesday (Dec. 3) at 5:30 p.m. at the Kent City Hall, 220 Fourth Ave. S.. Another town hall discussion is set for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Pacific Lutheran University’s Anderson Center, 112th Street and Park Avenue South in Parkland.


The two ports’ preliminary plan is to market and operate their terminals and other maritime facilities under a joint arrangement beginning next summer. The two ports have been rivals for years, periodically stealing each other’s customers. The two ports decided earlier this year that they needed to join together to attract more customers in light of competition from East and Gulf coast ports and new ports in Canada and Mexico.

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