Port commission approves open meetings defense costs

By John Gillie, October 29, 2014, The News Tribune

The Port of Tacoma could pay up to $50,000 to defend its commission members against a lawsuit alleging they violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by holding confidential meetings with the Port of Seattle commissioners over a planned operations alliance.


The commission unanimously approved last week an authorization for the port to pay legal fees of up to $50,000 to defend commission members in a lawsuit brought by Olympia open government advocate Arthur West. Any costs beyond $50,000 will be paid by the port’s legal liability insurance carrier.


That same authorization also would allow the port to pay any fines or judgments against individual commissioners if the courts decide those confidential meetings violated the Open Meetings Act.


State law allows governments to pay legal defense costs and judgments in cases brought against their governing officials if those officials acted in good faith as part of their official duties.


West’s suit, awaiting a decision as to jurisdiction from a Seattle federal judge, alleges that state law prohibits private commission sessions except in narrowly defined circumstances such as national security issues, personnel decisions, litigation matters and limited real estate transactions. Discussing a proposed alliance behind closed doors, West contends in his suit, doesn’t fit those exceptions in the Open Meetings Act.


Both the ports of Seattle and Tacoma contend that the confidential meetings are allowed under the auspices of the Federal Maritime Commission. The two ports applied for and received maritime commission permission to conduct joint meetings. Federal law allows the minutes of those meetings to be kept secret, thus the attorneys for the two ports advised port commissioners that they could hold the executive sessions.


West contends that state law, not federal rules, govern their meetings. He is asking the federal court to return his suit back to state Superior Court where it was originally filed.


The Port of Tacoma has signed an initial contract with Tacoma’s Goodstein Law Group for up to $21,000 to handle the open meetings litigation. That law group is the port’s regular legal counsel. The port pays Goodstein $20,000 monthly to handle routine legal matters for the port. Specific litigation under that agreement incurs additional costs, thus the need for the $21,000 contract.


Carolyn Lake, a law group attorney who handles much of the port’s normal legal business, said the group has incurred billable hours against that $21,000 but hasn’t yet sent a specific invoice to the port.


“I’d only be guessing how much we’ve accumulated so far,” she said.


The Port of Seattle has retained an outside law firm, Calfo, Harrigan, Leyh & Eakes, to handle their defense, said Port of Seattle spokesman Peter McGraw.


The series of confidential joint meetings between the two ports resulted in an agreement for the two ports to form an alliance to jointly market and operate their marine cargo assets. The two ports want to attract more cargo to the Puget Sound rather than expend energy trying to lure clients from one another, a practice that has continues for decades.


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