On Thursday, a judge in Pierce County, Washington ruled that officials with the Port of Tacoma did not violate campaign finance laws when they sued to block two local ballot measures.
In March, an advocacy group called Save Tacoma Water filed papers to put two local initiatives on the November ballot. The measures would have required a public vote for any new use of Tacoma's water supplies exceeding one million gallons per day; it was part of a campaign against a Chinese-backed plan for a methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma, which would have used as much as 10 million gallons of city water per day.
The methanol plant’s investors backed out the following month, citing regulatory issues and pre-existing pollution at the proposed site. In June, the Port of Tacoma announced its intention to sue to block Save Our Water’s measures from the ballot. "These initiatives, similar to ones declared invalid in other parts of the state and country, are aimed at requiring public votes on manufacturing, industrial and technology water users that create economic opportunities and family-wage jobs for our community," the port said in a statement.
The Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County (ECB) and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber joined the suit, and they succeeded: on July 1, a county court blocked the water measures from appearing on the ballot.
The Port of Tacoma, the ECB and the Chamber spent a combined $65,000 on legal services to bring the lawsuit. However, they did not report these legal fees as political expenditures – and this caught the attention of the state attorney general. In August, the state filed a civil suit against the port commission, the port's executives, the ECB and the Chamber, alleging that they had failed "to properly report independent expenditures they made in opposition to certain local ballot propositions."
On December 15, county Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper cleared all of the defendants of wrongdoing, finding that their legal challenge against the ballot initiatives was not a campaign activity, and therefore would not require any campaign expenditure disclosures. However, while the port succeeded in winning both suits related to the ballot measures, the planned methanol plant may not return: its backers say that they are committed to investing in facilities at the Port of Kalama, Washington and at St. Helens, Oregon instead.