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Olympia Port Budget Proposes Raising Taxes

The port meeting room was packed for a community conversation held by Port Commissioner E.J. Zita on Tuesday afternoon. Citing the Washington Open Public Meetings Act, Zita refused to attend a port executive session scheduled for 12:15 p.m. about a log loader contract. Commissioner Joe Downing said the executive session would be rescheduled.

The Port of Olympia has a lot on its plate: controversial cargo, a direct action rail blockade that continues in downtown Olympia, a 2018 budget that proposes to raise taxes to the highest extent possible without a public vote, and transparency issues over missing and edited video of public meetings.

To discuss any or all of those issues, Port Commissioner E.J. Zita held a public “commissioner chat” session at port offices the afternoon of Tuesday, November 22, 2017, just 45 minutes before she was scheduled to participate in an executive session with fellow port commissioners Bill McGregor and Joe Downing.

She said the turnout was the largest crowd for one of her commissioner chats that she’s ever seen.

In front of about 35 members of the public, including several longshore workers, Commissioner Zita did not attend the executive session, and explained why she believed doing so would be in violation of the Washington Open Public Meetings Act.

The hot-button issue of the day was about the port’s proposed purchase of two front-end log loaders for $3 million and the legality of the contract to purchase them. It was also the purpose of the executive session.

A contract for the log loaders signed in June by the port’s executive director, Ed Galligan, appears to have exceeded his delegated authority. The executive director is authorized to sign agreements for up to $300,000 in one year without a vote of the commissioners but unbeknownst to commissioners, the contract was a one year lease to own commitment totaling $720,000.

Zita said the commissioners were told the lease would be for $60,000 a month starting in November. The log loaders cost $1.8 million to purchase, but the financing arrangement balloons the price to $3 million over a period of 20 years.

A June email to the commissioners from Galligan states, “The rental agreement gives the Marine Terminal Director, Longshore labor and the Port’s maintenance crew time to properly test the equipment without an obligation to purchase.” The agreement involves the trade-in of the two existing log loaders.

“….The port commission needs to figure out what to do about this and staff suggested the executive session,” she explained to the group.

The Executive Session That Didn’t Happen

The executive session was publicly noticed to discuss potential litigation and was expected to last 45 minutes, with no actions or decisions to be made.

Executive sessions are not open to the public and limited to pending lawsuits, personnel actions and setting minimum prices for real estate. All three port commissioners must be present.

At 12:15 p.m., conversations with just a couple flare-ups around the issue were well underway when Commissioner Downing arrived in the back of the room and informed Zita, who was in the front of the room, that it was time to go into executive session.

Zita informed him that she was not going to do so.

“Yea, I can see you have a great meeting going on,” he said, with more than just a touch of sarcasm in his voice. He started to leave.

Heads swiveled back and forth between the two as Zita asked Downing not to leave until she had her say, stating that she has formally noticed commissioners and staff of the inappropriateness of holding a private meeting.

She requested that the meeting be held in public.

“Then it wouldn’t be an executive session,” Downing said, adding that the executive session would be rescheduled. He left the room.

Zita continued the meeting explaining that she was not required to go into executive session. Her interpretation of the law was that if she had attended the executive session, it would be illegal, quoting RCW 42.30.110, which prevents commissioners from discussing the matter in executive session when it has already been brought up in the public.

The need to hire outside counsel may be necessary since port counsel is present in the meetings.

If there were adverse legal or financial consequences to the Port, those consequences would result from Galligan’s lease authorization in excess of his delegated authority, not from public discussion about it, she said.

While Zita did not question the need for the log loaders, she questioned the manner for their purchase.

“We do not have the funds for the log loaders. We have yet to pass a budget and allocate funds,” she said. Zita says the budget is tight and the commissioners are about to raise taxes as high as legally allowable without public approval.

Several community members questioned why the port hasn’t budgeted in advance for machinery needed to do basic business and suggested raising the rates to the three primary marine terminal tenants so the higher rates could pay for the equipment.

“I think it’s an option worth exploring,” said Zita.

Speaking of a backlog of deferred maintenance, Zita said the marina office has mold in one of the offices making it unusable. The 2018 budget also is proposing to cut janitorial services and repaving projects.

“The marine terminal needs at least half a million dollars a year to repave port property due to wear and tear. It’s currently budgeted at $450,000 and that amount is proposed to be cut to $300,000….We shouldn’t have to do that. We’re already behind on deferred maintenance and trying to meet our financial goals….We’re not meeting that goal,” she said.

Log Loader Use

Logs from Washington State are exported to Japan, China, and South Korea. According to the port, it takes about 1,200 truckloads of logs to fill one vessel arriving in Budd Inlet.

The front end log loaders are used by three primary marine terminal tenants: Weyerhaeuser, Holbrook, and Pacific Lumber and Shipping.

In an email to Little Hollywood, Galligan said that all the port’s loaders are “governmental property,” and used for a broad range of cargo handling, operated by the longshore union ILWU, Local 47, and billed at an hourly rate per the port’s tariff.

He said the loaders were used for the movement of corn and gold ore that the port handled earlier this year.

Longshore workers present at Zita’s meeting said they could use better equipment and ships can be loaded quicker and more safely. Zita questioned whether or not the economics of better productivity with the new log loaders is beneficial for the longshore workers

Chris Swearingen, a longshore worker, said it takes Olympia longshore workers five days to load a ship, compared to seven to ten days in Aberdeen and eight days in Tacoma.

“We’re a good port,” she said.

“You’re already highly productive,” Zita interjected.

“….When a machine breaks down it takes us six days sometimes…we’re not losing hours or pay when we get good equipment and good machines. We’re going to keep to that five days. It’s about safety. We want safe equipment. We’ve been trying to get new log loaders for four years. I’ve been trained on a log loader. It scares me. They’re big machines, they’re breaking down….It’s like a car and it starts getting miles on it. You don’t say, ‘I can’t afford it’ when the tires are on treads – you go for the safety….The machines are wearing out. We need to get them taken care of….The company is getting more hours when the machines break down….” said Swearingen.

The port commission is set to vote on its 2018 budget on November 27, 5:30 p.m. at 626 Columbia St. NW, Suite 1-B, Olympia.

Above: Robert Rose of the longshore union ILWU, Local 47 and other longshore workers attended Commissioner Zita’s community chat on Tuesday afternoon. Rose complained that the meeting wasn’t posted on the port’s website and accused Zita of illegal use of port property for campaigning. Zita said port staff did not have time to post a notice of the meeting on its website and trusts that will happen in the future. “If you want to talk about transparency, a lot is being dropped by the port,” responded audience member Robert Jeffers, referring to recent videotapes of public meetings that have not been recorded or have been edited. Zita said she knows staff is working on solving those problems as well.

This article was originally posted on Little Hollywood, which writes extensively about Port of Olympia issues.

Written by Janine Gates

Janine Gates

Janine Gates is a freelance journalist and photographer in Olympia, Washington and writes a news blog, Little Hollywood.

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Olympia Port Budget Proposes Raising Taxes