A new state Supreme Court ruling rebukes secret meetings on a critical oil export facility, and sends a message to public agencies and judges alike about the importance of the state Open Meetings Act.
PUBLIC-agency leaders around the state should grab a highlighter pen and carefully read a new state Supreme Court rulingthat chastises Port of Vancouver commissioners for meeting in secret executive sessions.
The case itself is relatively narrow, regarding real estate deliberations. But the unanimous high court underscored — use your highlighter here — the immense value of the state Open Meetings Act in holding public agencies accountable.
The ruling, written by Justice Charlie Wiggins, emphasizes the damage done to “transparency and popular sovereignty by approving expansive discussion in executive session of matters squarely in the public interest.”
At issue is a 2013 lease by the port to Tesoro-Savage for the largest oil-export facility in North America. The project, which is pending review, would bring up to six 1½-mile oil trains a day along the Columbia River.
Over seven executive sessions, the port commissioners stretched a narrow exemption to open-meetings laws — allowing deliberations of a “minimum price” for a real estate deal — into a catchall excuse to exclude the public and news media from important discussion of an unprecedented project.
A coalition of environmental groups rightly sued for Open Meetings Act violations, and were joined in support by the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Highlighters ready? The Supreme Court recited the righteous, table-thumping preamble of the original Watergate-era state law: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.”
But the port commissioners skipped right past that message when they met in secret executive session to discuss “broad-ranging” aspects of the project, including “what type of crude would flow through the facility and its risks.” Those are central public concerns that have no business being discussed behind closed doors.
The Supreme Court’s unequivocal rebuke of the port is important because it also overturned a trial court judge’s approval of the secret meetings. With fewer news reporters out there, judges must be a backstop for the public interest.