The Washington Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision Thursday in a ruling that suggests the Port of Vancouver violated public meetings law while negotiating a lease for an oil terminal.
The court largely sided with environmental groups who argued the port commissioners violated the public meetings law by excluding the public from deliberations about the controversial Tesoro-Savage oil terminal lease.
The court remanded a decision on the case back to the Clark County Superior Court and did not rule on whether the lease should be invalidated.
The Port has a lease with Tesoro-Savage companies as part of a plan to develop an oil-by-rail terminal that can ship 360,000 barrels of oil a day from the port to refineries along the West Coast.
The environmental groups Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center, all opponents of the project, sued the port in 2013, arguing port commissioners violated state public meetings law when they were negotiating the lease for the terminal.
Under Washington law, a public body can meet in executive session to consider the minimum price that real estate can be offered for sale or lease.
In its defense, the Port of Vancouver argued that a wide variety of factors needed to be considered in setting the minimum price for the lease, which is why the port held multiple executive sessions that excluded the public.
In 2015, Clark County Judge David Gregerson ruled in favor of the port on five out of seven executive sessions.
“There is understood to be a necessary degrees of latitude on the part of the port to be able to discuss in executive session many things, which go into the price of a particular transaction,” Gregerson said.
Gregerson said he couldn’t rule on the other two sessions because the facts were not clear.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said the port’s interpretation of the law was too broad and should only have applied to meetings that dealt directly with setting the minimum price for the lease. His group took that argument to the Supreme Court for a second opinion.
In its ruling, the court clearly sided with the environmental groups, noting: “the exception permitting executive sessions to consider the minimum price at which to offer public land for sale or lease must be read narrowly.”
The court concluded: “The plain language of the provision ... does not permit discussion of all factors that influence price," and thus “the Port’s five executive sessions at issue here concerned factors influencing price and were not themselves focused on arriving at a minimum price.”
VandenHeuvel said it’s up to the lower court to revisit the case and decide whether the lease should be invalidated because the port violated public meetings law.
“We think the port acted illegally and therefore the result, the lease, should also be invalid,” he said. “That hasn’t been decided. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the port misinterpreted the law. The court ruled the Port of Vancouver did misinterpret the law.”
Right now, the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is preparing to issue a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee on whether the state should approve permits for the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal. So, decisions about the lease and state permits for the project could play out simultaneously.
“But if the state rejects the project,” VandenHeuvel said, “the lease won’t matter as much anymore.”