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Public engagement is essential to success for the Port of Olympia

A Commissioner reflects

E.J. Zita was elected as a Commissioner of the Port of Olympia in 2015 on a promise to work for greater accountability, transparency and environmental responsibility at the Port. She has chosen not to run again in 2021. Matt Crichton interviewed E.J. Zita for Works in Progress. The interview is edited and condensed here.

WIP:  What moved you to run for a seat on the Port of Olympia?

Zita: About 20 years ago, the Port proposed a development that would have hurt my neighborhood near the airport. We organized, worked with the City of Tumwater and held the Port to higher standards.

At first, we didn’t know anything about permitting processes, Environmental Impact Statements or development reviews. We learned, we spoke up and we stuck with it for years.  Tumwater responded by restricting mega-warehouse developments near schools and residential neighborhoods—a victory, despite opposition from Port lawyers and big development money.

Later, as president of our neighborhood association, I served on the master planning commission for the Port’s New Market Industrial Campus.

People kept asking me to run for office and I kept saying no—until I had a crippling farm accident that shifted my priorities in a lot of ways. Finally, a groundswell of outrage at the Port’s treatment of Sue Gunn convinced me to run for her open seat.

[Note: Sue Gunn was elected as a Port Commissioner in 2013 after running as an environmentalist and scientist. In 2014, she was pressured to resign rather than take a leave of absence due to illness.]

WIP: What was it like, campaigning in Thurston County?

ZitaWe ran a real grassroots campaign—a Port for the People.  I was a political newcomer and our campaign teams were mostly volunteers who cared about making a difference. I had just graduated from a wheelchair to a walker so I had to give up on doorbelling. I hate asking for money so I didn’t do as much as a candidate needs to. Our opponents raised almost twice as much as we did.  We won our first election by less than 1%—but the second by double digits.

WIP:  What goals and expectations did you bring to the Commission?

Zita: My main goals were accountability, transparency and environmental responsibility at the Port. That meant listening to the public and changing Port practices. I expected resistance to change.  I didn’t expect so much resistance to listening to the public.

WIP: Public Ports are Special Purpose Districts. How does that play out in Thurston County?

Zita: The Port of Olympia’s Strategic Plan starts with the triple bottom line:  Economic, environmental, and community benefit.  Our goals are nominally built around that. I don’t agree that economic development is a Port district’s primary goal. Contributing to the triple bottom line in real terms remains a challenge at the Port—especially if environment and community are not really prioritized.

The Port has an outsized role in politics and the environment, compared to our role in the local economy. Our budget is far smaller than the main cities—and pales compared to the County budget. We employ just a few dozen people.

The Port’s political power comes mostly from our management of hundreds of millions of dollars in public assets. Insiders and other friends of the Port can get better deals—especially in real estate and near the waterfront. Real estate and logging interests have heavily funded conservative candidates willing to continue business as usual at the Port—without asking hard questions about the bottom line.

Ports were created in Washington State a century ago—to ensure public access to the waterfront. Not to contaminate the waterfront, pave it over and fence it off with barbed wire.

WIP.  An important purpose of Port Districts is to support development that will produce living wage jobs and economic growth throughout the community that funds it.  How well do you think the Port is doing?

Zita: Direct employment at the Port is down—both Port employees and Longshore. The last economic benefit study in 2015 concluded that if the Marine Terminal closed, jobs would not be lost. They would just go elsewhere.

The Port of Olympia hasn’t contributed much to Thurston County’s economic development as far as jobs are concerned. Our big purchase of Lacey Commerce Business Center created few new jobs. Port leadership point to changing global markets and COVID to explain poor performance.

WIP: The Port adopted Vision 2050, prioritizing environmental sustainability and waterfront recreation over continued concentration on logging and the Marine Terminal.

Zita: People in Thurston County love outdoor recreation and want to be able to enjoy a clean waterfront.  People want to be able to play and swim and fish in Budd Inlet—and maybe even eat the fish.  The Port owes it to the people to help clean up our mess, restore the ecosystem and provide public access to the waterfront—not just to businesses.

WIP:  How is the Port working toward the new priorities?

Zita: I don’t know how economic considerations were reflected in the public vote on Vision 2050, as against business as usual at the Marine Terminal.  While many locals are aware that exporting raw logs is a raw deal environmentally and financially, I think that even more are looking toward a better future.  We could have a positive impact by supporting broadband infrastructure, as other ports have done. Our support of the Ag Biz Hub has the potential to advance the triple bottom line for Thurston County.

We also built the Billy Frank Jr. Trail along Marine Drive—despite Commissioner Downing’s objections that “we already gave the Indians a building [the Billy Frank Jr. Center downtown], why should we give them a trail too?”

Port staff are working on a new waterfront development project that has had a mixed reception from the public.  The plan appears to be mostly for a big new building and an expensive RV park along the waterfront. The RV park would violate Olympia’s Shoreline Plan, so the City is being asked to change that.

Some point to the new marine fuel dock as supporting recreation—for people who enjoy motorized boats. Yet it’s not clear if the dock served even that purpose. Our 2015 financial analysis prior to building the dock assumed that 90% of local boaters would buy 90% of their fuel there—and even then, it would be in the red for over 20 years. Early data shows we’re not getting that much business—another subsidy from taxpayers.

WIP:  How is public engagement part of strategic planning for the Port? Master planning for the Airport and the Marine Terminal are overdue.

Zita: Public engagement isn’t a priority. It may even be seen as dangerous when people participate in master planning processes and become empowered.

Practices that discourage public engagement have reached new levels in recent years. This includes things like delaying planning activities, waiting until the day before to announce meetings or agendas—allowed for “special” meetings. Sometimes public comments are removed from minutes with no consultation. There are times when the Commission President interrupted people or shouted them down.

WIP:  How should the Port as a Public District support meaningful public engagement?

Zita: One thing is video recording all meetings and making them available on line—something I accomplished. More accessibility and transparency. People are concerned and want to be part of decisions. Despite late meeting notices and minimal publicity, scores of concerned residents wrote and spoke to the Port to protest the proposed lease to Panatonni.

WIP: Do business decisions at the Port take environmental sustainability into account?

Zita: Environmental sustainability is not a high priority for this commission.  We’ve credited developments in paved areas with utility hookups as “environmentally sustainable,” because they didn’t ruin a natural area. We could pursue sustainable projects by actively cooperating with our regional partners. Thurston Regional Planning Council and Thurston County provide great opportunities, from transportation and affordable housing to legislative agendas

WIP:  How have the many lawsuits about pollution from businesses activities affected the Port?

Zita: The Port’s direct expenses from environmental lawsuits amount to tens of millions of dollars. Interest expenses cost extra, because the Port doesn’t have millions in the bank.  Indirect expenses include higher insurance costs. There are other expenses that I can’t discuss because of executive privilege. Outstanding clean-up responsibilities are mostly for legacy pollution from Port activities over the decades. We built a stormwater treatment facility for log exporters at the Marine Terminal—at taxpayer expense.

WIP: How is the Port limiting the potential for continued environmental damage?

Zita:. Current Port activities are less polluting, thanks largely to the oversight of environmental activists. Concerned citizens can hold the Port to higher standards. Listening to the people up front can be cheaper than lawsuits. Looking to the future, the Port objects to the Deschutes Estuary Restoration. We could also improve our environmental impact by acting on the Port Commission’s stated support for the Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan and by getting serious about sea level rise.

WIP: There is persistent criticism that the Port’s capital investments lose money and instead serve to subsidize profits of Port clients. Are there better ways to evaluate capital investments?

Zita: One strength of the Port is that it can borrow against its ability to tax, so they have access to funding that private businesses do not. Used unwisely, that borrowing power means the Port can run up unsustainable debt for unsound projects.

In considering investments, the first thing we should do is look for those that meet goals articulated by the Commission—and the public, e.g., in Vision 2050.  Don’t jump at investments dangled before the Port by profiteers.

We should involve the public fully at all stages. The WA Supreme Court in a case involving the Port of Vancouver affirmed that the Open Public Meetings Act requires us to include the public at all times—not just because we have to, but because we need their input to make good decisions. Aversion to public engagement and transparency contribute to poor planning, and low levels of public trust.

Port commissioners shouldn’t settle for sketchy financial pro-forma shortly before making an expensive decision that taxpayers will pay interest on for years—possibly with little or no return.

With incomplete information, we lack full understanding of costs, and taxpayers make up the difference down the line. There has to be responsible financial analysis first—including a market analysis, a cost-benefit analysis. And an ecosystem service analysis for developments in natural areas.

The market analysis for the Lacey Commerce Business Center was performed a year after we made the $6.5 M purchase on credit—at which point it revealed a soft market for its intended use. Commissioners approved the Panatonni lease option the same day we first saw a draft pro-forma. It was nearly a year before we saw a “financial benefits” projection (not a proper cost-benefit analysis) provided by the developer (not an independent analyst). Thurston County’s 2012 Ecosystem Services Analysis, which applied to 200 acres of flood-prone and forested land (where the Panatonni project will be sited) was, sadly, dismissed by Commissioners and staff.

Contract management also needs systematic review and more oversight. Commissioner McGregor rightly called for this last year. We’re still waiting.

The power of the Executive Director to act on their own Delegated Authority needs to be reviewed. The Commission was pressured to approve a $2.2 M purchase of log loaders after the then Executive Director signed an expensive lease (now costing $3M with interest).

WIP: There is also criticism that the financial measures approved by the Commission don’t reflect actual performance.

Zita: The Port has a high commitment to reporting financial measures that make the Port look good, when those can be found. Business as usual at the Marine Terminal costs taxpayers a couple of million dollars per year—and that leaves out some big costs.  For example, we are still paying interest on over $5 million dollars invested in the Big Blue Crane, but this isn’t shown on the Marine Terminal budget. To break even, the crane would have to be used over 1000 hours each year—but it’s only used about 10-20 hours per year! The Marine Terminal is a great deal for Weyerhaeuser and a lousy deal for taxpayers.

WIP:  What should the Port do to improve its rating by the State Auditor?

Zita: Recent “findings” by the Auditor center on mistakes and irregularities in financial reporting.  Much of this was due to staff turnover and changing internal systems. Irregular contracts and hiring processes can yield unprofessional and inefficient results—and sometimes lawsuits.

We can improve by hiring a Chief Financial Officer, better training and retention of staff and settling on a consistent standard financial reporting system—instead of changing it every year. The Auditor noted other weaknesses that haven’t been addressed: a low level of cash on hand and a high debt to earnings ratio.

WIP: What would you name as accomplishments you’re proud of?

Zita: To start with, getting Port meetings video recorded and available online.  Asking hard questions about Port decisions instead of rubber-stamping them. Empowering concerned residents and cooperating with local leaders—from Commissioner Chats to TRPC.

Some specific things are:

Support for agriculture initiatives, from the Ag Biz Hub and WSU studies to food processing equipment. Military Cargo Listening Sessions instead of militarized crackdowns on protestors. Cancelling the Port’s military cargo exports. Support for Water Protectors’ right to free speech and assembly.  Cancelling the Port’s fracking sand imports from China and exports to the Bakken oil fields.  MniWiconi—Lakota for “water is life.”.

Commission support for my POCAC projects—we adopted internationally recognized guidelines for public participation; community solar (Hummingbird project); EV chargers at the Farmer’s Market; passenger ferry study.

Getting Commission agreement that: we need a Tribal Land Acknowledgement and funding for Sea Level adaptation and Climate Mitigation.

WIP:  Advice for voters choosing two new Port Commissioners in November?

Zita: If you want business as usual at the Port of Olympia, including tax increases, vote for Amy Evans and Jessie Simmons. Evans and her firm, Kidder-Matthews, earned $1.57 million as a commission from the Port ( i.e., taxpayers) for brokering the Panatonni deal.

If you’re looking for better financial oversight, more community engagement, and a new commitment to environmental sustainability at the Port, vote for Joel Hansen and Bob Iyall.

WIP.  What it was like for you personally sitting on the Commission? What strengths would be important for someone looking to bring changes?

Zita: A reflex to fight for justice.  I learned this as a protective big sister with two vulnerable brothers (one with Cerebral Palsy, one small, both bullied).

An analytic mind.  I never studied economics, but being a scientist prepared me to learn enough to communicate clearly about Port finances—with plenty of help from smart friends.

Staff at the Port tend to be intensely loyal.  A signed loyalty oath is explicitly required.  “Port First” is their motto.  The Port is like a family—for better and for worse. Public inquiries and comments are often seen as threats to the Port. The family doesn’t welcome outside scrutiny, even from the taxpayers who keep it afloat.

It surprised me, but the Port turned out to be meaner than I expected.  Fellow Commissioners and their allies started levying attacks against me right away. I was accused of “conflict of interest” because I served on a Port committee studying our neighborhood. “Misuse of public resources.”  Being an uppity dyke.  And so on.

A judge investigated each major complaint—and found me innocent.  Except for the uppity dyke part.

The most disturbing attacks came in the last couple of years—ranging from physical threats to false charges of crimes.  Politics is not for the faint of heart.

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