In Our View: Port Officials Should Resign

CEO, commissioners’ disregard for public they’re sworn to serve has gone too far

Editorial, May 21, 2015, The Columbian

Using a well-documented culture of secrecy, the Port of Vancouver commissioners and CEO Todd Coleman repeatedly have failed to live up to the standards expected by the voters and taxpayers who serve as their bosses. Through the frequent flouting of state open-meeting laws and a general disregard for the public, the actions demonstrated by the port’s leadership have amounted to nothing less than an abuse of power.


Because of this, Coleman and Commissioners Nancy Baker, Brian Wolfe, and Jerry Oliver should resign their positions immediately. This is not said flippantly or without due consideration. This is not said with malice. It is, however, stated with regard for the best interests of the public and the best interests of the port.


With any issue surrounding the Port of Vancouver, it is difficult to separate the management process from the commissioners’ controversial 2013 decision to approve an oil terminal at the port. Yet those questions must be separated. Regardless of how one feels about the port’s agreement with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal, that is an issue to be dealt with at the ballot box when commissioners come up for election. The violation of the public trust, however, is a more pressing matter.


As detailed in a recent three-part series by Columbian reporter Aaron Corvin, “the powerful port often sidesteps full public accountability” through a pattern of “keeping the community in the dark about crucial financial and policy issues before making decisions, and of improper use of closed-door executive sessions to hash out safety, environmental and financial issues, among others, meant to be aired in public.” It is not wishful thinking that these things should be aired in public; it is state law. Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said: “Whoever has the most information is the one who’s really in charge. If government has secret knowledge that they don’t share with the people, then the people aren’t the sovereigns anymore. The people aren’t the ones in charge of the government.”


When a port controls more than 2,000 acres of public land and receives $10 million annually from property taxes, losing sight of who is in charge amounts to government malpractice.


That malpractice was in evidence during the process that led to approval of the oil terminal. Records and court depositions show that numerous private meetings were held in developing the proposal, while the public was left unaware until the deal was nearly finalized. After the terminal was approved and questions arose about the legality of the executive-session meetings, commissioners held a public meeting in which they re-approved the proposal. This rubber-stamp process served as little more than a dismissive wink to public concern that had arisen about the terminal, demonstrating that port officials have little regard for those who employ them.


It is impossible to know what the decision on the oil terminal might have been if, in fact, officials had truly opened the issue to public comments and scrutiny. But it certainly is possible that if they had felt the fury of the dissent before the decision was made, the outcome could have been much different. That reflects why it is so important, so critical, to have an honest, open and genuine public process. Instead of upholding their mandate of working for the public and being accountable to the public, officials have treated the Port of Vancouver as a fiefdom.


In so doing, Baker, Wolfe, Oliver, and Coleman have violated the people’s trust. They should resign.


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