The Port of St. Helens is apparently overdue for a lesson in public relations.
Rather than have an open conversation about its revised application to rezone more than 800 acres of prime farmland into a designation that can support heavy industry, a majority on the Port Commission — Commissioners Mike Avent, Terry Luttrell and Chris Iverson — instead maneuvered to keep the application out of the hands of Port district residents once it was completed.
There really is no rational reason for the Port commissioners to employ this tactic. While it ensures supposed opponents — namely, the victors who appealed the first rezone to the state's Land Use Board of Appeals — will be forced to wait even longer to learn details of the plans for the property and potentially mount another appeal, it also erases an opportunity for the Port commissioners to have meaningful conversations with their constituents. And, bottom line, either the new application will hold up to a LUBA appeal, which we anticipate on the likely chance the county approves it, or it won't.
LUBA ultimately found the Port's first application was insufficient when identifying specific uses for the land proposed for rezone. The appeals board concluded that the Port failed to address why such uses could not occur on existing Port property at Port Westward, among other concerns.
Opponents will still have a chance to review the revised application and testify against it in front of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners — that doesn't change. If anything, the Port's efforts to keep the application secret while under its purview only serve as greater motivation for those who would oppose the rezone, not to mention fueling opponents' arguments that the Port too often operates clandestinely. The commissioners and staff traded an opportune moment to be open with Port district taxpayers for yet another chance to sully the Port's reputation.
Not all Port commissioners are to blame. Commissioner Paulette Lichatowich, in particular, should be applauded for pushing the Port Commission and its executive staff to be more transparent with taxpayers.
In documents acquired by the Spotlight, Lichatowich challenged the majority commissioners and executive staff's inclination to keep the rezone documents private. "... the public has a right to know what zoning changes are being proposed at Port Westward and should have the ability to comment on them, prior to the Port moving to the Board of Commissioners Hearing," Lichatowich wrote in a March 21 email to Avent, former Executive Director Patrick Trapp and Paula Miranda, who is now the interim executive director. "This is about transparency
and moving forward, not backwards."
Trapp disagreed, citing attorney-client privilege and placing the rezone application in the category of ongoing or pending litigation.
"This is not a new rezoning issue, as mentioned before...it's addressing LUBA's remand issues. We have been extremely transparent in what the Port's intentions are...address LUBA's concern and return to the County," Trapp wrote.
What Trapp failed to consider or simply disregarded in his response, however, is that while the Port has openly stated its position to address LUBA's concerns, the Port ultimately serves a public that wants to know what uses it has in mind and how those uses would benefit the public such that 837 acres of prime farmland must be converted into industrial property. It's just one of the questions state regulators are requiring the Port to answer, and it only stands to reason elected Port commissioners would want to keep their constituents in the loop regarding the application after the last one drew legal opposition and, ultimately, a LUBA remand.
We can appreciate that the Port Commission and staff desired to compose the application in closed sessions under the guidance of their attorneys. As Trapp pointed out in his response to Lichatowich, the remand is litigation, and public agencies have a legal option under Oregon's public records law to meet in closed sessions with their attorneys to figure out a strategy for addressing litigation or litigation likely to be filed.
But once that strategy has been decided, and a final application has been crafted for the consideration of the Port Commission, the public should be informed about what is coming, to have some understanding of what elected officials have concocted prior to nodding consent and quietly pushing the application along to the next step in the approval process.
At the least, the Port exercised bad public relations strategy, one that reinforces negative perceptions about the district's operations. At worst, it's a purposeful attempt by the majority Port commissioners to keep their constituents in the dark, to hamstring any meaningful conversation about Port policy and its plans for public land, and to absolve itself of any public redress for whatever it has in store for Port Westward — historically the focus of coal, crude oil, ethanol, methanol, and liquefied natural gas interests, to name just a few.