Politics & Government

Appeals court rules against Port of Tacoma in Save Tacoma Water campaign finance case

The state Court of Appeals has ruled against the Port of Tacoma in a public disclosure case.
The state Court of Appeals has ruled against the Port of Tacoma in a public disclosure case. adam.lynn@thenewstribune.com

The Port of Tacoma’s arguments for using public money in 2016 to fight two initiatives aimed at limiting industrial development on the Tideflats don’t hold water, an appeals court ruled this week.

The port, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County also were required to publicly disclose legal fees they paid during that fight, according to a decision from Division II of the state Court of Appeals.

The decision, announced Tuesday, sends the case back to Pierce County Superior Court for further proceedings.

The case stems from efforts by a group called Save Tacoma Water to require a public vote for new projects that would use 1 million gallons of municipal water or more a day. The effort followed citizen opposition to a proposed methanol plant on the Tideflats, a project that would have required loads of water.

The port, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County worried that the initiatives would scare away prospective businesses. They took the matter to court and “argued that the STW ballot propositions were beyond the scope of the City’s initiative power,” Division II Judge Lisa Worswick wrote in Tuesday’s opinion.

Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin agreed with the port, Chamber and EDB and blocked the proposals from the ballot.

Olympia public records activist Arthur West complained that the three groups violated campaign finance law in their effort, and the Attorney General’s Office got involved.

The Port spent about $45,000 in public money to oppose the Save Tacoma Water initiatives. The chamber and EDB spent about $10,000 each.

The Port, EDB and Chamber of Commerce argued they didn’t need to file campaign finance reports for their legal costs. Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper agreed and dismissed the case.

The state appealed that decision, arguing that the groups failed to report their legal costs as required by campaign finance law and that the port improperly used public funds to oppose the Save Tacoma Water effort.

The defendants argued that requiring such a disclosure would violate their First Amendment rights and that the applicable statute is too vague.

“The port additionally argues that it did not improperly use public funds because its actions fall within two exceptions to the prohibition against the use of public facilities to oppose ballot propositions in (state law),” Worswick wrote.

She and the rest of the panel, Judges Michael H Evans and Lisa Sutton, disagreed with those arguments.

The panel held “that the defendants made independent expenditures that required disclosure” and that “the Port used public facilities without meeting either cited exception,” according to the opinion.

The port said in a statement Wednesday that its commissioners and legal counsel were reviewing the decision and would consider next steps in the coming weeks.

“The Port believes that it acted consistent with state law when it joined with the EDB and Chamber in 2016 to seek judicial review of two local initiatives which were nearly identical to ones the Washington Supreme Court had recently found unconstitutional, a position that was confirmed in the previous lower court ruling,” the statement said. “The Port, EDB and the Chamber were very transparent about the lawsuit: The Port held a public hearing on the topic, and there was widespread public discussion about it.”

Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber President and CEO Tom Pierson said in a statement Wednesday that the Chamber is also assessing next steps, disagrees with the appellate decision “and notes that the PDC and the trial judge reached a different conclusion as well.”

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.