Three Tacoma agencies under investigation by the state’s election watchdog have asked the watchdog’s head to recuse herself from the investigation, and she has complied.
At issue are comments made on social media against a now-withdrawn methanol plant proposal for the Port of Tacoma.
The investigation stems from a complaint filed against the port, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County after they sued to stop proposed ballot measures that would limit port development.
The complaint, which alleges that their action violated state campaign finance laws, eventually landed at the state Public Disclosure Commission for review.
The Tacoma agencies said they expect an impartial review and believe they cannot have one with the PDC director in charge of it.
“It is with disappointment that the port became aware of various public comments made by the executive director regarding the port and chamber, in the context of the now abandoned methanol plant,” the port said in its request for her recusal.
PDC Executive Director and Tacoma resident Evelyn Lopez recused herself from the issue Friday after receiving their requests. She doesn’t deny making the remarks.
But Lopez says the port went too far when it issued a news release late Friday outlining its complaints. She said the port is retaliating against her for her strong opinions about the methanol project.
HOW IT STARTED
In late fall through this spring, the Port of Tacoma considered a project that would have brought the largest methanol plant in the world to the Tacoma Tideflats.
From December through April, according to the port, Lopez commented on several News Tribune articles about the issue.
During this time, a group called Save Tacoma Water formed to collect signatures and advance two issues to the ballot to require that Tacoma voters weigh in on proposed projects that would use more than 1 million gallons of water per day.
The methanol project eventually collapsed under a tide of criticism — both from locals and from elected port officials — but the signature gathering continued.
Last month, the port, EDB and the chamber sued to stop the ballot issues, saying they would chill economic development at the port and anywhere a large water user might locate in Tacoma Water’s service area.
A judge later scuttled the ballot issues, declaring them invalid.
Last month, Olympia resident and open records litigant Arthur West filed a complaint with the state attorney general alleging the port, chamber and EDB violated state campaign finance laws by coordinating to stop Save Tacoma Water’s ballot issues.
West alleged they engaged in “unregistered campaign activity.”
Two weeks ago, the Attorney General’s Office asked the PDC to take over the investigation and return a recommendation.
The request for Lopez to recuse herself came Thursday after all three agencies received a letter from the PDC asking for more information for its investigation.
All three agencies referred to Lopez’s social media comments in their requests for her recusal.
The EDB wrote that it “does not believe Ms. Lopez can participate in this matter in an unbiased manner.”
Lopez posted a comment on The News Tribune website below a January letter to the editor by EDB CEO Bruce Kendall, in which he asked readers to weigh the facts on the methanol project “instead of allowing some people to simply stir the pot.”
Lopez’s comment called part of Kendall’s letter a “ridiculous explanation.”
“Tacoma, we can’t let the venal and irresponsible Port and Chamber continue with this nonsense — time for the real people of Tacoma to decide what is in the best interest of our city,” she wrote in part.
During the public debate about the methanol plant, Lopez also told the Tacoma City Council members during a meeting that they were allowed to speak their minds about the project.
“I felt like both public bodies (the port and City Council) had abandoned their responsibility for being stewards of their resources and stewards of the public’s need to advocate for democracy,” Lopez said Monday.
Lopez also expressed disappointment in the port’s leadership in a comment on a January News Tribune article about the future of the Tacoma Tideflats.
“I remain deeply disappointed in the Port Commissioners, but maybe we can use the scoping and EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process to have those critical discussions,” Lopez wrote on Facebook in January.
A seasoned attorney who spent more than a decade in the state Attorney General’s Office, Lopez said the request for recusal was not unusual or improper.
“If their attorneys think I have a reason to not be open-minded, that’s fair for them to request it,” Lopez said Monday.
After receiving all three requests for recusal, Lopez responded with a letter of her own the next day that said she would let her staff handle West’s complaint.
“Please note that my decision to absent myself from the review process in this matter does not mean that I agree there is any conflict of interest or appearance of bias,” Lopez wrote in the letter.
Then late Friday, the Port of Tacoma published a press release and a tweet that irked Lopez. The release said the port appreciated Lopez recusing herself “after the port raised concerns about public comments that appeared to express bias.”
“The press release is to retaliate against me and try to create professional problems for me because I have the audacity to publicly disagree with that methanol plant,” Lopez said Monday.
The press release is to retaliate against me and try to create professional problems for me because I have the audacity to publicly disagree with that methanol plant
Public Disclosure Commission Director Evelyn Lopez
Port of Tacoma attorney Carolyn Lake said she’s “baffled” by Lopez’s use of the word retaliation.
“We thought the tone and tenor of her comments gave us no choice,” but to ask for Lopez’s recusal, Lake said. “The port does not take lightly the decision to request recusal, but we felt it was the responsible thing to do to protect the client and obtain a proper hearing.”
Chamber CEO Tom Pierson said he didn’t know about Lopez’s online comments until the chamber received a letter saying the PDC planned an investigation.
“Her comments blow my mind,” Pierson said of her reaction to the Port’s press release. “It’s like my teenager who when she gets in trouble tries to turn it back on someone else.”
Kendall, the EDB CEO, said “There’s no hidden agenda here.” Lopez was very vocally against the methanol proposal, he said.
This is not personal at all. She’s a public official paid by the state of Washington to be the executive director of the PDC.
Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County CEO Bruce Kendall
“This is not personal at all,” Kendall continued. “She’s a public official paid by the state of Washington to be the executive director of the PDC.”
Lopez was appointed by the PDC commission last year to serve as the executive director. PDC commission members are appointed by the governor.
Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Anne Levinson of Seattle to the commission last year. She chairs the five-member committee (one seat is vacant).
Levinson said it’s hard to tell when a hot-button local issue will bloom into a ballot measure, but agency employees — including the PDC director — should feel free to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Restricting speech too much may dissuade people from applying for jobs at the PDC or from serving as commissioners, Levinson said.
“You don’t want to overstep and limit the ability of them being actively engaged in their communities,” Levinson said.
Levinson said one of Lopez’s priorities is to expand the reach of the PDC through Facebook and Twitter. Lopez made the comments against the methanol plant on her personal Facebook page.
Lopez said in her recusal letter that while she has “criticized the port’s failures to advise and involve citizens in its decisions, I have never taken any position on the proposed Save Tacoma Water initiatives. I have also never commented on whether the port’s legal actions constituted the use of public funds, public facilities or public resources” to oppose the ballot issues.
“Save Tacoma Water was created to stop methanol,” Pierson said. “By weighing in on comment sections on different newspapers — it seems to be bad judgment and bad behavior.”
Kate Reynolds, the executive director of the state’s Executive Ethics Board, said she can’t comment without all of the facts in front of her. That agency is responsible for investigating claims of state employees misusing state resources.
Lopez said her office does not have a formal social media policy.
Lori Anderson, the agency’s spokeswoman, said the PDC does have workers sign an “internet use policy,” but it does not address employee behavior on social media.
“We have to be careful when we engage or opine on community issues like the methanol plant siting that was a local lobbying matter not regulated by the PDC,” Anderson wrote in an email. “We have to be careful to the extent that we have been and continue to be.”
Lopez said she personally does not “like” pages for local or state politicians on Facebook, nor does she comment on campaign posts that have to do with ballot measures. Lopez said she did not comment on any posts about Save Tacoma Water’s proposed ballot issues, but her Facebook page shows she “liked” Save Tacoma Water’s page.
She said she reads comments on news articles first before adding her two cents.
“If the ground is fully plowed — if this issue has been covered and they raised the issues that I raised — I wouldn’t comment,” Lopez said.
Lately she’s having second thoughts about her online participation.
“When I got this (requests for recusal) I thought, ‘You need to think about whether you need to comment on everything ever,’ ” Lopez said. “If people cannot engage in a civic debate, that’s a loss. I’m a big believer in open debate and the free exchange of ideas.”