Open meetings violation question back in court Friday

A King County judge could decide Friday whether to dismiss a citizen’s complaint that the state’s two largest ports violated state law in holding private meetings about a planned operations and marketing alliance.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle have moved to dismiss an open meeting advocate’s lawsuit contending the two ports’ ruling commissions breached the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by holding a series of confidential joint sessions to discuss creating an alliance.

The two ports have scheduled the latest in that series of executive sessions for 8 a.m. Tuesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That private session will be followed by a public meeting in which the two five-member elected commissions will be updated on the progress of forming the alliance.

The motion to dismiss is the latest in a series of legal maneuvers designed to end the legal challenge brought by Arthur West of Olympia over the legality of holding those private sessions.

The two ports previously had tried to move the matter to federal court, but a judge there thwarted that move and sent the matter back to King County Superior Court, where it originated.

The ports have argued that the closed sessions are allowed under federal maritime law. The two bodies sought and received permission from the Federal Maritime Commission to hold talks about combining operations. The minutes from those meetings under federal law are exempt from public disclosure, thus the meetings themselves can be private, the ports’ attorneys have claimed.

The two ports announced last year that they plan to form a marketing and operations combine to jointly seek new business for the two ports. The two Puget Sound ports have been losing market share in the container shipping business to Southern California ports and to the Canadian port of Prince Rupert. The planned opening of an expanded Panama Canal in 2016 is also expected to put competitive pressure on the two ports.

West, in his response to the state’s motion to dismiss, called the ports’ reasoning “unpersuasive and implausible.”

The open meetings advocate argued that federal maritime law has no provisions requiring “that the State Open Meetings Act be violated.”

That act requires state and local governing bodies to hold their meetings in public except in tightly defined circumstances such as when personnel actions are being discussed, when litigation is being reviewed or when real estate issues are being decided that might cause the price of a transaction to be unfavorably changed. Also included in those exemptions are matters of national security.

West claimed the two commissions “decided to play fast and loose with the people’s trust, to act behind closed doors and to invoke a series of technical and specious arguments when brought to court.”

The port commissions have passed motions permitting the two ports to spend public money to defend them and their decision to conduct business in private.

Port commissioners have said the private sessions have allowed them to speak candidly on delicate political issues involved in the proposed alliance.

The two ports have fought each other for decades to win a larger share of business in Puget Sound.

They have tentatively named Port of Tacoma Chief Executive John Wolfe to head the alliance. That alliance is expected to begin operatingthis summer.