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Attendees vent frustration with port procedure at meeting

Port polices on information availability drive discussion at Wednesday meeting


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Port of St. Helens office in Columbia City, where the Port Commission meeting was held on Wednesday, Aug. 14.Three members of the public criticized the Port of St. Helens at its Port Commission meeting Wednesday, Aug. 14, over port officials and commissioners’ handling of public inquiries, sparking a back-and-forth that grew heated at times over the port’s policy.

St. Helens residents Annie Christensen and Nancy Whitney, frequent critics of the port, expressed dissatisfaction with the way their questions about port properties and operations have been answered.

Christensen claimed she sent emails to Port Commission President Robert Keyser that have gone unreturned for about two months. She also said Keyser did not direct her to a relevant document for a question she had earlier this year about how Port Westward docks are used.

“To me, the solution for the port is to provide the public, the taxpayers, with written information about what you are doing,” said Christensen, adding, “I would love to know how to get written information from you. It sounded like you were surprised that I had written you twice and you hadn’t responded.”

“It seems to me you’re always asking me to write information, to create documents for you,” Keyser responded. “You have access to all the documents. But when you ask for documents and they don’t exist, there’s nothing I can do for you.”

Under Oregon’s public records law, public entities like the Port of St. Helens are only required to provide documents on request if they already exist as written records and fall directly within the scope of the request.

Port Commissioner Mike Avent circled back to the discussion later in the meeting, suggesting that commissioners discuss how they handle public information requests at a work session.

“We get criticized,” Avent acknowledged. “We’re doing the best we can to listen to everybody. We get a million comments a day. I’m not much into the emails and stuff like that, because I’ve got a full business to run, and it gets overwhelming to go back and forth, but I love hearing from you all. That’s where we make decisions. It’s about listening to the public, hearing what they have to say. I don’t know how we can do that better. ... If there’s a more effective way, maybe we can think about comments.”

Christensen said she appreciated Avent’s interest in reviewing the procedure, but she claimed she has had difficulty viewing port documents due to fees for staff time and copying costs that the port charges, as allowed under state law.

The port allows working documents to be reviewed with a staff member present for up to 15 minutes free of charge, but it requires anyone wishing to view the document for longer or obtain a copy to take home to pay fees, as the port’s executive director Patrick Trapp noted.

Liese Horn added her voice to the discussion, asking why the port cannot post those drafts to its website, as it does with items that will be voted on at its next Port Commission meeting.

“We have the Internet. Is there no reason that you can’t post these documents on your website?” Horn asked. “Could you not just post them and call them drafts dated so-and-so, and just make them available? Why does it have to be a long process that is a costly process for anybody, when it could just be scan-and-post?”

Trapp said the port chooses not to do so because the drafts are incomplete and subject to change.

For some documents, Keyser said, “There will be hundreds of draft changes.”

“And the first thing you’re going to say is, ‘You’re not up to date,’” he continued. “’You’re not posting the latest change.’”

Port Commissioner Chris Iverson agreed, saying the port would be inundated with questions and comments from the public about incomplete drafts that may be out of date by the time a member of the public reads them.

Alta Lynch of Scappoose sided with the commissioners.

“I think the draft, putting it on, is unreasonable ... because it could change, it could change, it could change,” Lynch said.

Whitney was unmoved.

“I think you’re wrong in not keeping the public informed,” she told the commissioners. “You want a finalized version before the public sees it.”

Staff and commissioners rejected that allegation, saying Whitney or any other member of the public can request access to a document by going through the port’s process.

“The public would still have a chance to comment once the final is done and they’re going to vote on it,” Lynch added. “That doesn’t mean that you don’t have the opportunity. It’s there.”

“Or come here and look at it for free for 15 minutes,” suggested Paula Miranda, port deputy executive director.