Both sides are claiming victory after the state Court of Appeals ruled the ports of Tacoma and Seattle were allowed to conduct closed meetings prior to their merger as the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
The two ports had been sued by Arthur West, an Olympia resident who is an active watchdog of open meetings and public records laws. He sued the two ports alleging they held closed meetings with a quorum of elected members — against the state Open Public Meetings Act.
“Allowing the public, including possible competitors, access to the ports’ meetings on these matters would make it far more difficult for the ports to develop competitive approaches,” the justices wrote in a unanimous 3-0 ruling. West said he is considering an appeal.
The ports said they did nothing wrong because they operated under the authority of a federal law called the shipping act, which regulates ocean shipping and in some cases allows closed meetings for ports. The ports must submit detailed minutes to the Federal Maritime Commission, which are exempt from public records requests.
Port of Tacoma attorney Carolyn Lake said the court made a “sound decision.”
“This ruling by the court recognized that there are certain discussions the managing members make that are truly business decisions,” that should be held in private, Lake said.
After decades of fierce competition, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle held a series of closed meetings to talk about a possible merger. Over the course of several months in mid-2014, the ports held around a dozen meetings — all closed to the public.
Shipping competition was tough, and officials from both ports feared projects in Panama, Canada and around the world would lure shipping lines away from Puget Sound.
The two ports celebrated the partnership last summer with a Champagne toast.
West sued the two agencies and all of both ports’ commissioners two years ago for what he said are violations of the Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act.
Federal law allowed the ports to shield the meetings from the public, the ports’ attorneys argued. But judges ruled last week that the meetings could be public if the ports wanted them to be while filing confidential minutes with the Federal Maritime Commission.
West said the court’s ruling could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which separates federal and state powers. He said the federal law that allows the ports to keep their meetings closed should not trump Washington’s open meetings requirements.
“Due to the nature of our system, there are reasonable limits on the powers of Congress to determine the day-to-day operations of state government,” West said Thursday.
Though West lost his main argument, he called the ruling a victory. Appeals court justices ruled West had standing to bring the case in the first place — a lower court ruled to dismiss West’s claims because he lives in Olympia, outside of both ports’ boundaries. West also does not have to pay attorney fees.
This is not West’s only tango with the Port of Tacoma. Last month, he served a complaint to the Port of Tacoma commission, alleging the port used public resources to campaign against two ballot measures. West said he sent the complaint to the state Attorney General’s Office.
The measures would have required a public vote for new large users of the city’s water supply. A judge blocked both measures from the ballot this month.