Seattle-Tacoma port alliance: A grand bargain struck in utter secrecy

Surprise! Without you knowing it, elected officials in Pierce and King County have decided to reinvent the foundations of Puget Sound maritime commerce.

If this kind of thing isn’t public business, what is? Yet the port commissioners of Tacoma and Seattle spent months meeting behind closed doors to produce what they call the Seaport Alliance, a strategic partnership between the traditionally competitive waterfronts. They announced the plan last week.

The alliance is a big vision, and it looks like a promising one. Asian shippers are starting to bypass Puget Sound for other places that are fighting aggressively for their business. In 2000, Seattle and Tacoma handled 15 percent of the West Coast’s imports; now they’re down to 10 percent. Combining the power of Commencement and Elliott bays may help the region claw its way back into contention.

But it is jarring to have this sprung on the public out of the blue.

Competition is not a bad thing. The ports of Tacoma and Seattle have been rough-and-tumble rivals for more than a century, and the struggle has kept them both hungry and high-achieving.

Anything that smacks of a merger is fraught with regional politics. Past proposals have typically been attempts by Seattle to tame and dominate its southern rival; people on this end of Puget Sound have rightly been wary.

Given that history, the decision to engineer the deal in secret was foolish in the extreme – even contemptuous of the public.

Leaders of the two ports got permission from the Federal Maritime Commission to hold the negotiations behind closed doors in violation of Washington’s open meetings laws. Their lawyers say federal law somehow preempts state policy – even though the port commissions are local governing bodies subject to the state.

Regardless, the FMC would not have ordered the commissioners to do all their horse-trading behind closed doors. We get that some items, such as the details of shipping lines’ proprietary information, ought to remain private. What we don’t get is why the public was entirely shut out of the broad policy agreements.

The commissioners, for example, decided in secret to make this a revenue-sharing alliance instead of some other intergovernmental arrangement. Why couldn’t interested citizens have been privy to that discussion?

Or even – shocking as the idea might seem – made suggestions? Was all wisdom to be found under the roofs of the two ports' headquarters?

The commissioners tentatively decided to hire Tacoma Port CEO John Wolfe as executive of the new body. Wolfe is a talented leader and administrator, but what do we know of the path that led to him? Were there other candidates? If so, why were they passed over? We have no clue.

The idea that this momentous discussion had to be treated as a state secret is absurd.

The Puget Sound region created a three-county mass transit authority in the 1990s. Scores of regional leaders representing many local governments were involved. Many delicate compromises and revisions were required. It all was done successfully in public view. Yet two port authorities with a total of 10 commissioners feared they couldn’t find common ground unless no one was watching.

The Seaport Alliance is not entirely a done deal. The partnership needs final ratification, and certain specifics have yet to be worked out. Having struck the grand bargain, the commissioners will now deign to accept public comment on the details and permit citizens to watch them apply the finishing touches. How gracious.

The alliance itself sounds logical. It may well be the right response to the ferocious challenge from ports in British Columbia and California. But the process that led to it stinks like a dead crab on the sand.