Port of Tacoma

Audience stunned as Port of Tacoma announces new transparency measures

The Port of Tacoma in 2013.
The Port of Tacoma in 2013. Staff file

Two days before a key vote at the Port of Tacoma, officials sent an email to 4,319 subscribers to its Pier Side newsletter with a forgettable subject line: “Bulk export facility tops Thursday’s agenda.”

In fact, the proposal was for the largest Tideflats development in decades.

During that May 1, 2014, meeting, port commissioners voted 4-0 for a lease with a China-backed limited liability corporation that wanted to build the biggest methanol plant in the world.

Though the port followed the letter of the law — it says public agencies must post agendas 24 hours before a meeting — many have criticized the port for a perceived lack of transparency.

Two days was not enough time to let the public know of such a momentous decision, Michael Lafreniere said at a January public meeting.

“Why did the public not have more notice?” asked Lafreniere, a Tacoma resident who was behind a now failed initiative that would have allowed voters to reject proposals that, like the methanol plant, use more than 1 million gallons of water a day.

“Last November, you gave a three-week notice you were going to a holiday party,” Lafreniere told commissioners.

This week, at the Port Commission’s meeting, president Connie Bacon announced a surprise policy proposal.

The measures proposed, if adopted by the commission, would require at least three public meetings before the commission could vote on a lease for a project that fits any of three criteria:

▪ “Stores, processes, manufactures or distributes fossil fuels” on more than 10 acres of land.

▪ Uses more than 1 million gallons of water per day.

▪ Uses more than 26 megawatts of power.

Only two power customers regularly demand more than 26 megawatts in a given month: Joint Base Lewis-McChord and WestRock, according to Tacoma Public Utilities.

The proposed change will ensure that the public is not again blindsided by a large project on port property like the methanol project, Bacon said.

“We heard you, and you needed more information, and you needed it more timely, and you needed to know what’s going on,” Bacon said.

A half-full auditorium sat shocked as Bacon read her statement. Some audience members gasped with delight as she kept reading, some erupting into spontaneous applause and saying “yes” under their breath.

The measures also would have applied to a liquid natural gas facility the port hopes to build on 30 acres of its property.

Under current rules, the commission can approve a lease for any project the first time commissioners consider it, called a first reading. That’s what happened when commissioners approved the lease for Northwest Innovation Works’ failed methanol plant in 2014.

With the new proposal, there must be a first reading of a lease agreement when the port introduces a project.

Then a public study session, during which public comment will be accepted, must be held to provide the public with a project timeline, financial impacts, economic impacts, environmental issues, utility requirements, safety issues and facility operations.

Finally, commissioners can approve a project during the second reading, which must take place at least three weeks after the first reading.

The commission could take up the issue before the end of the summer, Bacon said.

Even with the new arrangement, she said, the public won’t always get its way.

“It does not predetermine the outcome,” she said. “We will take all comments into consideration and make a decision on the best possible answer for the most people.”

The changes are being proposed for what’s called the “master policy agreement,” a document that grants the port’s CEO authority to complete tasks on behalf of the commission.

“This is a first step. We are moving forward, and it may be TMI,” Bacon said, using the acronym for “too much information.” “We are going to try our best to answer your concerns.”

In addition, Bacon said, she wants to change policy to require two public meetings before the commission takes a vote on any lease, a practice she said is common at the Port of Seattle.

Claudia Riedener, a founder of RedLine Tacoma, which opposed the methanol plant, said Friday she was encouraged by the proposal.

“Obviously nothing is set in stone yet, but I think it has some incredibly positive ideas if they come to pass,” Riedener said. “That would definitely be a big game-changer.”

Bruce Kendall, CEO of the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County, lauded the port’s proposed change in a statement. The nonprofit recruits businesses to Tacoma and Pierce County.

“The new policy adds an additional layer of public outreach and participation that will help future projects be better understood and embraced,” Kendall said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports