For a middle-aged city councilman, Marty Campbell’s fashion choices got him an unusual amount of attention this week.
He led Tuesday’s City Council meeting while wearing a Rudolf-red sweater, a color that signaled to a crowd of red-clad protesters that he shared their worries about the proposal that would bring the world’s largest methanol plant to the Port of Tacoma.
“Thank you, Marty Campbell, for wearing red,” resident Marilyn Kimmerling, one of several anti-methanol speakers who noticed Campbell's sweater, told him at the meeting.
Campbell later played coy when a reporter asked him about his color choice.
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“I just kind of decided to wear it today. People can draw from it what they want,” he said.
Whether it was a coincidence or a message, Campbell’s sweater renewed a discussion about the fine line Tacoma council members are trying to walk while raising questions about the controversial project without making statements that could be interpreted as compromising the city-led study that would assess its environmental impacts.
Many of anti-methanol Red Line Tacoma members who packed this week’s council meeting implored the council to take a clear stance opposing construction of the plant, which was proposed by the Chinese-government backed Northwest Innovation Works.
“Get your damn voice back,” one Red Line Tacoma member told the council. “If you believe this is a good deal, you should tell us now so we can start finding an opponent for your position.”
Mayor Marilyn Strickland last month laid down boundaries for the council in remarks that she meant to convey how the members could weigh in on a project that has already won a lease from the Port of Tacoma but has not yet received a green light from the city’s planning department.
The council could ask tough questions, she said, but it would not pass resolutions designed to kill or obstruct the project. If it does, she argues, the city would risk a legal challenge alleging the council influenced the planning department’s environmental review.
“Our job is to make sure the process is done objectively,” she said this week.
“A lot of the public debate has centered around people’s perceptions about how bad this is, but this could represent an opportunity to be a global leader on clean energy,” she said. “At the end of the day, we have to consider not only the (negative) possibilities, but also the potential benefits. At a minimum, we owe ourselves a process that asks hard questions and answers them.”
Her caution made sense to her colleagues, who seconded her remarks at last month’s meeting. Some of them have raised questions about the project, including Councilman Ryan Mello, who submitted a two-page letter detailing the issues he hopes the city planning department will consider in its review.
Not present at last month’s meeting was Councilman Robert Thoms, who wrote a guest column in Sunday’s News Tribune that advocated for a less industrial future at the port.
“My vision is of a city that is less industrial than its past,” Thoms wrote. “We can have jobs and commerce and quality of life, but we also must have a better understanding of what the parcels in the port and surrounding area are able to handle, and what are the right projects and zoning to create the future we want.”
To some outside city government, that was the first sign that the council was breaking its perceived silence on the project.
Evelyn Fielding Lopez, an attorney and chairwoman of the state Public Disclosure Commission who lives in Tacoma, said she thought the council was being too cautious with the stance its members articulated last month.
“They have a really important role because they represent the citizens of the city, and if they engage, great, but to stand on the sidelines and say ‘We can’t be involved whatsoever,’ that’s not great,” Lopez said.
Three council members reached by The News Tribune this week would not describe the legal advice they received regarding how they could talk about the methanol proposal.
They said their decisions were informed both by their experiences navigating past controversial projects and by the regular guidance they receive on maintaining the appearance of fairness as elected officials.
City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli also declined to describe the advice she gave to the council regarding the project. But she did say no law or precedent prohibits council members from discussing a topic like the methanol plant.
“There’s no such thing,” Pauli said. “There are some different concepts that have probably led to caution with regard to what they can and can’t say and when.”
Other elected bodies in the state have opened themselves to pricey lawsuits when they’ve either taken gifts from a project applicant or abruptly put up obstacles to projects that otherwise would have complied with local zoning rules. In one case, the city of Spokane had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties for blocking a 1995 apartment proposal that fit local development guidelines.
That has not happened in Tacoma with respect to the methanol plant, although some protesters have been asking the council to rezone the methanol property to kill the proposal.
“Rezone to save the city,” resident Kris Brannon said at the council meeting.
In Cowlitz County, where Northwest Innovation Works has proposed a smaller methanol plant, elected officials have enthusiastically endorsed its development.
County commissioners there have touted its potential economic benefits when they’ve applied for federal grants that would improve the Port of Kalama. Similar to Tacoma’s Planning Department, Cowlitz County is one of the agencies processing the methanol plant’s environmental review.
“The new methanol plant (and a companion port project) will generate many new, family-wage jobs, both during construction and permanently once plant operations begin,” all three commissioners wrote in an August grant request. “The project will create opportunities for the middle class in Cowlitz County.”
Tacoma council members over the past month have begun to raise questions about the methanol proposal in broad terms, such as how it might conflict with city development and environmental goals they’ve already approved. Those conversations may lead to talks with the Port of Tacoma, council members said.
Campbell, for example, said he wants to look at how a proposal like the methanol plant would impact other major public projects, such as an extension of state Route 167 to the port.
“We are certainly not mute,” Councilman Anders Ibsen said. “It is entirely appropriate to draw people in and have a serious discussion about long-range planning and economic development, and how we can work together better with the port.”