Having closely followed the Port of Seattle for many years it sometimes feels as if the organization does not consider itself subject to Seattle's laws, and doesn't hold itself to the standards imposed by the city's progressive government and their agenda.
Consider that, when the city of SeaTac voted to implement a $15 an hour minimum wage, the Port refused to recognize that city's jurisdiction. Instead the Port, which is supported by an $80,000,000/year in public taxes drawn from Seattle and King County residents chose to file a lawsuit, claiming that it is not bound by actions of neighboring municipalities.
The Port, at that time led by former commissioner and current candidate for Governor Bill Bryant, claimed massive economic hardship (sound familiar?) as a result of wage increases and took the matter all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court. A legal process which wound up costing taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the end these arguments were rejected. In its decision the court wrote, "There has been no showing that this law would interfere with airport operations." Heather Weiner, spokesperson for Yes for SeaTac condemned the Port in her reply, identifying that their obstructionism had denied badly needed wages from low-income workers for more than a year.
"Thousands of hard-working men and women at the airport are sending each other jubilant text messages, happy that they will finally get the fair pay and paid sick leave approved by the voters 20 months ago. It's too bad Alaska Airlines and the Port of Seattle tried to block fair pay and paid sick leave for 4,700 people, but we're confident justice will be served when the workers receive their back pay going back to January 1, 2014."
Perhaps The Port felt itself above the law in SeaTac because It's commissioners fancy themselves as an independent municipality whose relationship with those cities, described by commissioner Tom Albro in testimony before the Sustainability and Transportation Committee on April 5 is one of "two governments with overlapping jurisdictions."
In other words, they consider themselves a separate municipality and only feel constrained to follow Seattle law or process when, on specific occasions, they happen to be in agreement.
This is not the first time the Port and it's commissioners have struggled to understand their own role as a quasi-governmental agency with taxing authority. In a 2009 report produced by the watchdog Municipal League of Seattle found criticizes the Port for lacking a specific mission, finding that:
The mission statement is so broad that it fails to distinguish between the activities promoted by the Port as a special district and the general government investment better left to the state, county, city and other specialized agencies.
It goes on to explain how the Port manages to have such an intrusive presence in intergovernmental affairs:
The Port's discretionary taxing power allows it to fund activities that normally fall to general government units.
If the Port Commissioners want to fancy themselves as a real government, perhaps their fiefdom should be called "Litigation City." As they have, in recent years increasingly turned to litigation as their go-to method of rejecting progressive Seattle policies:
In a very high visibility case the Port sought to bypass Seattle public process (the very thing they are accusing SonicsArena of doing) by conducting backroom negotiations to bring Shell Oil Rigs to Terminal 5. During this contentious battle Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien took to a kayak in opposition and issued the statement, "And I am strongly opposed to the Port's backroom deal-making to become the new home port to Shell's Arctic drilling fleet."
In 2015 Port lawyers defended the organization against claims of discriminatory practice against small businesses. The businesses claimed that they were given remote locations at the airport with less foot traffic and the Port of Seattle imposed expensive "build-out" requirements that were not imposed to the same extent as non-minority businesses. They also claimed that when they did not comply with the Port of Seattle, they were subject to retaliation.
The Washington State Supreme Court rejected the Port's defense and held them accountable. In another case where they denied benefits to a worker injured on the job and left as a paraplegic.
The Port's reliance on, and budget for litigation were called out in a 2014 watchdog report by King5 News, which claimed:
"The Port of Seattle spent more than $1.2 million starting in 2009 to cover legal bills, sanctions, and a settlement payment related to a workplace harassment and racial discrimination suit filed by an employee who had been touted as being a valuable asset to her department and to the Port as a whole.
The Port, which boasts its own six-person legal team, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside law firms for this single case. Still, in the course of contesting the suit, the Port's outside legal team was sanctioned for withholding key evidence, adding another $161,000 to the case's cost, which was ultimately settled in the employee's favor.
They continue to hire outside lawyers, spend huge amounts of taxpayer dollars and to defend cases where they just ought to take responsibility and step up and change the way things are, said Ann Deutscher, one of the plaintiff attorneys in this case.
They act like the taxpayer dollars are theirs, Deutscher said. I've never seen money spent so glibly. I'm a resident of Seattle; [that] they could spend my tax dollars to defend what is the indefensible in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars is beyond belief."
In Seattle or King County our government would understand that it is their role to protect those without power, like Berhane. Unfortunately, the Port and it's commissioners have different standards and in Litigation City the Port has a different set of prioritizing, using their power and their subsidy to support ILWU, Burlington Northern, Hanjin, Coal Trains and Shell Oil by fighting to protect decades of entrenched power abuse.
So on Tuesday when the Port of Seattle announces that it is filing suit against the City of Seattle, I will not be surprised, nor will I be upset. Instead I'm going to be proud to be on the right side of things, fighting against "Litigation City" with advocates for financial empowerment, social justice, environmental common sense and all the rest of the underdogs to deal this petulant and overly litigious Port yet another legal defeat.