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AGO 1987 No. 12 - April 22, 1987
AGO Opinion Header Image
Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS ‑- PORT DISTRICTS ‑- FORMATION OF LESS THAN COUNTY-SIZE DISTRICT WHERE COUNTY-WIDE DISTRICT EXISTS 

The provisions of chapter 262, Laws of 1986, do not allow the formation of a port district of less than county size where there is already a county-wide port district established and functional. 

There is no requirement that the question of port district formation be presented to the voters by the county legislative authority even if a proper petition is submitted to the county auditor and such petition is certified by the auditor to the legislative authority when the proposal is for a port district of less than county size where there is already a county-wide port district established and functional. 

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                                                                   April 22, 1987

Honorable Stuart A. Halsan
State Senator, 20th District
437 John A. Cherberg Bldg.
Olympia, Washington 98504 

 Cite as:  AGO 1987 No. 12                                                                                                                

 Dear Sir:

             By letter recently acknowledged, you requested our opinion on the following questions:

             1.         Do the provisions of chapter 262, Laws of 1986, allow the formation of a port district of less than county size where there is already a county-wide port district established and functional?

             2.         If the answer to question 1 is negative, is there still the requirement that the question of port district formation be presented to the voters by the county legislative authority even if a proper petition is submitted to the county auditor and such petition is certified by the auditor to the legislative authority?

             We answer both questions in the negative.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

                                                                      ANALYSIS

             Introduction

             Port districts are municipal corporations, like cities, towns, public utility districts, and similar public agencies.  RCW 53.04.060;State ex. rel. O'Connell v. Port of Seattle, 65 Wn.2d 801, 803, 399 P.2d 623 (1965).  A municipal corporation, being a creature of the State, derives its existence, powers, and duties from the Legislature.  Othello v. Harder, 46 Wn.2d 747, 752, 284 P.2d 1099 (1955).  A port, as a municipal corporation, is limited in its powers to those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted and to those essential to its declared objects and purposes.  See Port of Seattle v. Washington Utils. & Transp. Comm'n, 92 Wn.2d 789, 795, 597 P.2d 383 (1979); Pacific First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Pierce County, 27 Wn.2d 347, 353, 178 P.2d 351 (1947).

             Chapter 262, Laws of 1986, amended RCW 53.04.020 and created a new statute that was later codified as RCW 53.04.022.  Before the amendment, RCW 53.04.020 had provided that a port district must be coextensive with the boundaries of the county in which it was to be established.  Section 1 of the 1986 act amended RCW 53.04.020 in part as follows:

                         At any general election or at any special election which may be called for that purpose, the board of county commissioners of any county in this state may, or on petition of ten percent of the qualified electors of such county based on the total vote cast in the last general county election, shall, by resolution submit to the voters of such county the proposition of creating a port district which ((shall)) may:  (1) Be coextensive with the limits of such county as now or hereafter established; or (2) be under the provisions of section 3 of this 1986 act. . . .1/

             Section 3 of the act, RCW 53.04.022, provides a limited exception to the requirement of county-wide port districts.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

             RCW 53.04.022 provides that, in other than class A counties, a port district with an assessed valuation of at least $180 million may be formed which is less in size than such a county.  The statute reads as follows:

                         When it is desired to create a port district comprising territory less than the entire county and with an assessed valuation of at least one hundred eighty million dollars in other than class A counties, the county commissioners shall, upon petition of ten percent or more of the electors residing within the proposed boundaries of such proposed district based on the total vote at the last general election within such area, submit to the qualified electors residing within such proposed district the proposition of creating such port district.  If at any such election a majority of the votes cast thereon shall be in favor of establishing such port district and the total vote cast upon such question shall equal one‑third of the total vote cast at the last preceding general election within such area, such port district shall be established.

 Section 4 of the 1986 act provides that RCW 53.04.022 expires on December 31, 1988.

             In your first question, you ask whether chapter 262, Laws of 1986, allows the formation of a smaller port district in a county containing a county-wide port district that has already been established and is functioning.

             The primary objective in interpreting a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent and purpose of the Legislature, as expressed in the act.  Grant v. Spellman, 99 Wn.2d 815, 818, 664 P.2d 1227 (1983).  The starting point in every case involving construction of a statute is the language itself.  Equal Empl. Opportunity Comm'n v. General Tel. Co., 599 F.2d 322, 328 (9th Cir. 1979).  However, when the intent of the Legislature is not clear from the language of a statute, the statute's legislative history may be considered.  Bellevue Fire Fighters Local 1604 v. Bellevue, 100 Wn.2d 748, 751, 675 P.2d 592 (1984).

             Chapter 262, Laws of 1986, does not address whether a smaller port district may be formed in a county already containing a county-wide port district.  The absence of any statutory provisions on this subject raises doubts that the Legislature intended to authorize such actions, since the Legislature has specifically  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] authorized and established procedures to be followed for other actions concerning port districts.  Those actions include annexation of territory (RCW 53.04.080-53.04.100), consolidation of two or more port districts (chapter 53.46 RCW), dissolution of inactive port districts(chapter 53.47 RCW), and the dissolution of port districts (chapter 53.48 RCW).  Had the Legislature intended to authorize the creation of smaller port districts within county-wide port districts, we assume the Legislature would have provided similar express authority and procedures for the formation of such port districts.

             Indeed, the floor debates in both the House and the Senate show that the Legislature did not intend to authorize the creation of such smaller port districts by passing Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804, 49th Legislature (1986) (chapter 262, Laws of 1986).  Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804 was originally introduced by Representative Vander Stoep.  On February 13, 1986, Representative Vander Stoep spoke in favor of passage by the House as follows:

                         This is a bill that will allow a two and one‑half year window period for entities smaller than counties to establish port districts.  If you live in a county that is already a port district like King or Pierce or another, this bill will not have any effect in your area.  The thrust of it is to allow economically depressed areas ‑ if they think that they can benefit by bringing in new business by the establishment of port districts ‑ to give the voters in these areas an opportunity for two years to make that determination.  I urge your passage of this measure.

 SeeHouse Journal, 49th Legislature (1986), at 358.2/ According to its prime sponsor, Representative Vander Stoep, Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804 was not intended to affect counties with established county-wide port districts.  Representatives Hine, Sayan, Padden, and Bond followed Representative Vander Stoep with comments on the bill.  They did not take issue with his statements  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] concerning the effect of the bill on counties with county-wide port districts, but rather spoke in favor of or against the bill on other grounds.  Id.

             When Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804 came on for second and third reading before the Senate on March 6, 1986, Senator Thompson stated as follows:

                         This bill has a central purpose for Lewis County.  It is drafted to be applicable to only Lewis County.  It provides for the possible creation of a port district where an airport exists.  We have port districts that are less than a county in territory now.  Cowlitz County which I represent, has a number of port districts.  There is no public purpose harm to provide this opportunity.  It is only rather recently that the Legislature concluded that port districts should be county-wide if they are created.  I think that the exception does no harm, and would contribute to the economic development of an area that is rather distressed economically.  It is a good measure, and Senator Saling has provided some improving technical amendments.  I urge its approval.

 SeeSenate Journal, 49th Legislature (1986), at 1053.3/ In a subsequent comment, Senator Halsan clarified that the bill was not being proposed only for Lewis County, but that other small counties could take advantage of it.  Id.

             On March 11, 1986, the bill was before the Senate for final passage after the House refused to concur in Senate amendments.  Senators Thompson, Saling, Halsan, and Zimmerman made comments on the bill.  The Senators all reaffirmed that Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804 was a narrowly focused bill, with the primary purpose of assisting the formation of port districts in Lewis County and potentially Mason County.4/

             They made no comment  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] suggesting that the act was to affect counties with established county-wide port districts.

             Based upon this legislative history, we conclude that the 1986 Legislature did not intend in chapter 262, Laws of 1986, to provide for the formation of smaller port districts within counties which contain county-wide port districts.  An additional reason for reaching the same conclusion is that a contrary reading would, in effect, permit the incorporation of a port district comprising territory that is already incorporated in another port district.  While we have never explicitly discussed this point in a formal opinion, we are unable to find any examples of Washington municipal corporations in which the Legislature permits new incorporation within already incorporated territory.  The result of this unusual procedure would be either that the territory in the newly incorporated port would be impliedly withdrawn from the county-wide port district, or that the territory within the newly-formed district would be simultaneously within the county-wide district.  Since the Legislature has not provided for either the withdrawal of territory from a port district or for territory to be simultaneously in two or more districts, the Legislature's failure to specify either result in the 1986 act underscore our conclusion that the Legislature did not contemplate such incorporations.  We thus conclude that the 1986 act did not authorize incorporations of new port districts in counties already organized into county-wide port districts.

             Having answered your first question in the negative, we now address your second question concerning the presentation to the voters of a proposition for the formation of a smaller port district in a county containing a county-wide port district.  In answering your question, we are guided by the rule of statutory construction that legislative acts must be interpreted to avoid strained or absurd consequences.  State v. Leek, 26 Wn. App. 651, 656, 614 P.2d 209 (1980).

              [[Orig. Op. Page 7]]

             Because chapter 262, Laws of 1986, does not authorize the formation of a smaller port district in a county containing a county-wide port district, it would be absurd to present such a proposition to the people for a vote.  It must be presumed that the Legislature did not intend to require such a pointless exercise.  It is therefore our opinion that chapter 262, Laws of 1986, does not require the legislative authority of a county to conduct such an election.

             We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

 Very truly yours,
KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General 

GARY L. IKEDA
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

 1/The form reflected herein is that of the Legislature.  In this amendatory sectionunderlined matter is new matter, and deleted matter is lined out and bracketed between double parentheses.

2/Representative Vander Stoep's remarks are taken from a tape recording of floor action on Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804, maintained by the minute‑journal clerk of the House of Representatives.  Similarly, our characterization of other Representatives' comments on the bill are based on our review of the same tape recording.

 3/Senator Thompson's remarks are taken from a tape recording of floor action on Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804, maintained by the minute‑journal clerk of the Senate.  Similarly, our characterization of other Senators' comments on the bill are based on our review of this and other tape recordings maintained by the minute‑journal clerk.

4/At the time the Legislature was considering Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1804, no port district was located in Lewis County.  After the passage of the bill, the Port of Centralia and the Port of Chehalis were separately formed in Lewis County in September 1986.  Mason County contains no county-wide port district but contains six separate port districts, namely the Ports of Hoodsport, Tahuya, Dwatto, Allyn, Grapeview, and Shelton.  These port districts all were formed before 1971, when the Legislature amended RCW 53.04.020 by removing provisions authorizing smaller port districts within counties.  See Laws of 1971, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 157, sec. 1, p. 725.

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