Drama dominates Port of Olympia meeting over commissioner’s actions

Law enforcement officers escort a train carrying ceramic proppant materials as it moves from the Port of Olympia through downtown early on Friday, Nov. 17.
Law enforcement officers escort a train carrying ceramic proppant materials as it moves from the Port of Olympia through downtown early on Friday, Nov. 17. toverman@theolympian.com

Port of Olympia commissioner Joe Downing proposed publicly censuring fellow commissioner E.J. Zita on Monday for her actions related to a weeklong protest that blocked train tracks in downtown Olympia in an effort to keep fracking proppants from moving out of the port.

In a tense, lengthy and interruption-filled exchange at Monday’s Port of Olympia board meeting, Downing accused Zita of violating the board’s code of conduct.

One issue involved Zita telling local media when law enforcement officers were planning to clear the protesters from the tracks. That information had been discussed during an executive session that was closed to the public, Downing said.

Zita said she was acting in the name of transparency when relating information about the law enforcement plans that she had received outside of executive session from Ed Galligan, the port’s executive director.

“Ed called me and told me that the camp may be broken up on Thursday,” she said, calling the situation a misunderstanding. “There was no indication that was sensitive information.”

Downing also said Zita violated the conduct code by making what he called personal criticisms against the port and staff. He cited a quote that Zita gave to local blog Little Hollywood and said it was a public insult that implied Galligan is to blame for fracking proppants in the port: “Port Commissioners are responsible for setting port policy, and the executive director is responsible for carrying out that policy. While the executive director may have played a key role in securing the Rainbow Ceramic contract to move fracking proppants through the Port, future decisions on this matter rest with commissioners.”

Zita defended her statement as crediting the director for getting the contract with Rainbow Ceramics, a company that exports fracking materials through the port.

“This is neither accusatory nor inflammatory,” she said.

Downing’s third point of contention was related to Zita acting as a liaison between the port and protesters without approval from the commission.

“We did not in any way authorize Commissioner Zita to be a liaison,” Downing said. “That’s just so dangerous for the port to operate like that. … You don’t act as a designated representative for the port. It’s just not within our ethical standards.”

Zita agreed with Downing’s assertion, but added she notified Galligan about plans to attend a meeting with protesters with an understanding that she was not authorized to make decisions on the port’s behalf.

Stuck in the middle of the Downing-Zita exchange was Commissioner Bill McGregor, who recused himself from a final vote on the verbal warning against Zita — and negated the motion by leaving it as a 1-1 tie.

“All three of us are part of the problem,” said McGregor, calling for more civil discussions.

During a public comment period, residents who spoke were divided in their views. Several members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 47 — who depend on the port for their livelihood — praised Downing for bringing the issue to light. Some criticized Zita for a lack of communication with other commissioners or for appearing to have an anti-port agenda.

Others admonished Downing for attacking Zita in what they saw as a disrespectful manner.

“This really feels like a witch hunt,” said Olympia resident Susan McRae.

After the meeting, Downing told The Olympian that he was not pressured by the longshore union to make the motion for a verbal warning against Zita, and said he did so to defend the established protocol for commissioners.