The Port of Tacoma is an invisible government

Eric Holdeman
Eric Holdeman

Much has been said and written in recent years about transparency in government. I’ve written before that some governments consider being transparent as meaning to be as opaque as possible. This is the issue the Port of Tacoma is having with the current brouhaha over the proposed methanol plant slated to be located in the Tacoma Tideflats.

I believe the origin of the complaints about the proposed plant comes from a lack of transparency. The Port of Tacoma, despite having transparency as a value, operates as an invisible government with little citizen interaction on the majority of activities being proposed at the port. There are plenty of commission and public meetings, but what is missing is “the public.”

Port commissioners can check the box about operating in the open, but if no one is there to voice an opinion in opposition to the proposed port action – all the better for them. This longtime behavior has come back to haunt them. By not engaging the public more rigorously in the past, they surprised citizens with the proposal to build the methanol plant in the Tideflats.

No one likes to be surprised, and to those unfamiliar with the culture at the port, it smacks of “they were trying to pull one over on us.”

It is totally appropriate for the Port of Tacoma to entertain business opportunities that add to the economic development and job creation for Pierce County and the citizens they serve. While port officials knew that having a coal terminal at the port was totally out of the question, they did not do their homework on the concept of locating the methanol plant there.

They didn’t understand the public opinion issue, because they didn’t actively ask the public before signing the lease. They didn’t have a sense of public opinion on the largest methanol plant in the United States because they had not engaged with the citizenry who would be impacted by its construction and operation.

To help increase transparency at the port, the leaders there should commit to two simple changes. One is moving their regular port commission meetings from their bimonthly Thursdays at noon to an evening time when more participation by citizens can be included in what is supposed to be a “public meeting.”

Secondly, they should limit the number of executive sessions. Currently one is held before each commission meeting. Why? An executive session should be held only for confidential business issues that need to protect the port or client when discussing legal issues with businesses and when public discussions might harm negotiations. While they might be following the law, their behavior does not reflect a commitment to transparency.

When government fails at being transparent, it automatically calls into question the integrity (another port value) of the organization and its leadership. Fix the transparency issue, and people will stop questioning the integrity of commissioners and the organization as a whole.

It is the port commission that has the responsibility and accountability to the citizens of Pierce County to provide for economic development, but in doing so, to also protect our people and the environment. If they had been transparent about those two issues, they would not be having the problems they are facing now.

Eric Holdeman of Puyallup is a former candidate for the Port of Tacoma Commission and former director of security at the port. He is director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience and does private emergency-management consulting.