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"What price growth...?"

April 9, 2006

Port's pledges of openness are empty
Our Views

Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks has issued a stinging indictment of the secrecy that shrouds operations at the Port of Olympia.

He chides port commissioners for promising openness but delivering little more than hollow rhetoric. Port commissioners forget that they govern a public entity and that the records they have custody of belong to the public. Commissioners - as well as all government officials - are guardians of public documents.

The case before Judge Hicks centered on records related to its lease with Weyerhaeuser Co. The timber company plans to move a log export business from near the Port of Tacoma to the Olympia waterfront. The League of Women Voters and two community activists asked for, but were denied by the port, access to 2,409 pages of records related to the Weyerhaeuser lease.

Judge Hicks reviewed the questioned documents in the privacy of his judicial chambers and concluded that the port has an "overly protective attitude" toward disclosure of the documents.

At the core of his 51-page ruling, Judge Hicks issued a harsh rebuke of port secrecy.

Saying he does not want to impugn the integrity of the port or its attorneys, Hicks said: "After reviewing in camera the documents sought to be kept secret by the Port of Olympia the court is left with a definite impression that the attitude of the Port, that is the platform from which they speak, is to maximize what can be kept secret and minimize what is to be made public. Instead of asking themselves,

'What can we make available to the public,' they ask, 'What can we keep from the public'? This is exactly the all too ordinary attitude of secrecy that the (Public Disclosure Act) was designed to confront."

Hicks said the port is protective of information as if it had something to hide. The only big secret, he said, is why port commissioners go about the public's business in the manner they do.

That's the heart of the issue. Port Commissioner Paul Telford has hounded Commissioners Steve Pottle and Bob Van Schoorl to have port operations more transparent. His pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. Commissioners simply refuse to understand that they are making public choices with public tax dollars. At election time, they want public votes, but then they conceal records from the public they are elected to serve.

It's infuriating. Judge Hicks is absolutely right when he says the port looks for ways to keep information from the public instead of looking for ways to make records public. It's a fundamental flaw in the way the commissioners approach their jobs. And their secrecy spreads to the staff members who work for them. Look no further than the reaction to Judge Hicks' ruling by the port's new executive director, Ed Galligan.

Galligan's response is that Hicks upheld the port on "about three-quarters of the records it has withheld." Galligan doesn't get it.

This isn't about numbers. This isn't about percentages. This is about attitudes toward openness and working with this community.

Judge Hicks rightfully hammered the port for its propensity for secrecy. Commissioners and the port staff need to hear that message and change their attitudes.

Today, commissioners' pledges of openness are empty. Their actions speak louder than their words.

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