The state Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday on whether the ports of Tacoma and Seattle broke state law in holding confidential meetings about the ports’ eventual partnership.
Arthur West, an open-government advocate, sued the ports two years ago. He said the ports violated the state Open Public Meetings Act by holding confidential sessions to discuss a proposed seaport alliance. West’s case was dismissed by King County Superior Court last year, but he filed an immediate appeal.
The ports have argued that the closed meetings are covered by the Federal Maritime Commission and that state law doesn’t apply. Both ports have since formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
The court’s ruling could answer two questions: Can a public agency use provisions in federal law to hold confidential meetings that might not be allowed under the state Open Public Meetings Act, and, who can sue an agency for a violation of the state open meetings law?
The ports have also argued that West, an Olympia resident, would not be harmed by the closed-door meetings and doesn’t have standing to file the suit.
West argued Monday that any resident of the state has the right to see what their government is up to. People don’t have to have a demonstrated interest in the outcome of the meeting to attend, he said.
“If you look at the (Open Public Meetings Act), it’s been found to contain some of the strongest language of any statute,” West told the three-judge panel in Seattle. “ ... It speaks to the public and the people to see the accountability of their government.”
West told judges he’s not looking to invalidate the formation of the Northwest Seaport Alliance. But he does expect public agencies to follow state law.
Port of Tacoma Attorney Carolyn Lake said West shouldn’t be allowed to sue, citing a 1981 case involving a Pierce County Fire District special meeting.
However, state law says “any person” can file a motion in Superior Court to enforce the meetings act, said Judge Robert Leach. He asked Lake to write a sentence containing those words that somehow excluded West.
Instead, Lake suggested the Legislature could, at some point in the future, adopt a definition that could exclude more people.
In his rebuttal, West asked how residents would know if a meeting pertained to them if the meeting was secret.
“How are agencies going to take the law seriously if they have to do a litigious version of the hokey pokey to have an open meeting?” West said.
How are agencies going to take the law seriously if they have to do a litigious version of the hokey pokey to have an open meeting?
Port of Seattle attorney Shane Cramer argued that the meetings were required to be held in secret under the Federal Maritime Commission.
Leach asked Cramer why the meetings couldn’t have been held under state law instead of federal maritime law.
“I don’t know that state law would permit them to occur in executive session,” Cramer said. State open meetings law allows closed-door meetings only in narrow circumstances.
However, the private meetings were allowed under federal law, Cramer said.
“It allows the ports of Tacoma and Seattle to further the nation’s interest in international maritime commerce, which is an area in which the federal government has had a significant and exclusive interest,” Cramer said.
“It could be characterized as matter of national security,” Leach said.
“It could,” Cramer said.
“There’s a (state) exemption for national security. Why wouldn’t that work?” Leach pressed.
Because the meetings were held under the federal shipping act, Cramer said.