Port releases alliance documents, but vital parts are edited out

John Gillie, April 27, 2015, The News Tribune


Some six months after he issued his first request for documents concerning a planned cargo handling alliance between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, an Olympia watchdog has received hundreds of emails and internal memorandums from the two ports.


But those documents have been so heavily edited and major portions deleted that they reveal little not already known about the process the two ports’ commissions used to reach agreement on the historic alliance.


That alliance was negotiated largely in dozens of private sessions between the two port governing bodies, under the auspices of the Federal Maritime Commission.


The open-meetings advocate who requested the documents, Arthur West of Olympia, had sued the two ports contending those meetings should have been public under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. A King County Superior Court judge, however, sided with the ports, saying that federal law regarding Federal Maritime Commission allowed confidential sessions to protect proprietary information.


West said his initial review of the voluminous documents showed “little real new information” in his initial cursory review of the documents.


West requested the documents regarding the sessions, but the ports repeatedly sought extensions of the time they were allowed to respond to those requests because of the complexity of gathering the documents and individually reviewing them.


In the end, the ports included with those documents a 76-page list of exemptions and legal reasoning about why large portions of the documents were deleted or blacked out.


The most common of those enumerated reasons for disclosing less than the full contents of the document concerned lawyer-client privilege and the exemption from disclosure granted by federal law.


Much of what was revealed included multiple drafts of a question-and-answer document about the alliance the ports’ public information departments were creating for public release.


The two ports have said the secrecy surrounding the negotiations between them was necessary because the two ports were sharing proprietary information about their costs and their contracts with terminal operators.


In the last several decades, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle have competed vigorously for business, particularly for container shipping. Several times the ports have attracted major shipping lines from each other by offering better terms and performance.


The two ports, however, collectively have been losing market share in the shipping business to Long Beach and Los Angeles in Southern California and to Vancouver and Prince Rupert in Canada.


They face new competition from Eastern and Gulf ports once the enlarged Panama Canal opens next year. That updated canal will allow larger containerships to reach the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, cutting transportation costs.


The two ports are working out the details of their alliance, which will combine their cargo facilities into one operating entity. The cargo terminals, however, will remain the property of each port. That alliance is expected to be activated this summer.

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