With a social media post that began a bit cryptically and continued in a way that nearly obscured its intent, Port of Olympia Commissioner E.J. Zita announced she’s not running for re-election.
It said: “1. Presidential coup and 2. silencing of public voices
“An incumbent president executed a coup and secured a second term, abetted by a loyal second.
“Joe Downing nominated himself for an unprecedented second term as president of the Port of Olympia Commission, despite the longstanding practice of annual officer rotations. (Port Commissioner Bill) McGregor voted with Downing to pass the motion.
Vice President Zita was scheduled for rotation into this office. She is not running for re-election in 2021. Commissioners agree that candidates should not serve as president in their election year, as that could be an unfair advantage.”
In an interview after the post, Zita said: “When I got recruited to this position in 2015, I had no idea what a hostile work environment I would be facing … it has been especially nasty in the past year.” Her social media post referred to the election of Downing as president, even though it typically would have been her turn in the rotation.
Zita’s time on the Port Commission has been marked by her conflicts with the two other commissioners, Downing and McGregor, over issues ranging from port accountability and transparency to the types of cargo it accepts and ships. Port discussions were at times notable for their lack of friendliness and other times seemed openly hostile.
“There has to be some expectation of some basic level of civility … There have been personal attacks due to political differences since the very beginning,” said Zita, who is an out lesbian, a scientist, environmentalist, and the owner of a cattle ranch in south Thurston County with her partner since 1995. She said she had been a woman “working in a man’s field” for many years, but “this has been the most hostile work environment I’ve ever been in.”
“The Port is notoriously conservative,” she said. “It’s kind of an uphill battle to hold ports accountable and to ensure they are transparent (because) they are a hybrid of private business and a public agency … businessmen dominate ports in Washington state”.
Late last summer, the port made public a report on an investigation into an allegation of sexual harassment made against Zita. She was aware of the allegation and the investigation but was not notified that the port would discuss them at an August meeting. Its agenda did not include an item that the report would be addressed, leading to accusations from members of the public that Zita had been blindsided.
She categorized the allegation as “false accusations against me.” The port paid thousands of dollars for the investigation, which concluded: “there have been instances in which Zita engaged in conduct that caused several port employees to feel uncomfortable.” It did not make a specific finding of sexual harassment. Said Zita said in a social media post: “I am not a sexual harasser. I am warm with friends – and yes, I hug some. I shake a lot of hands (except in COVID times) and am professional with colleagues … I do not caress or kiss port colleagues, make sexual comments, or engage in sexualized behavior of any kind with them. Absolutely never. Perhaps what I consider to be a friendly gesture, a pat on the back, or a hug, may be considered differently by others. Perhaps I need to be more aware of other people’s boundaries.”
The situation led to an expansion of the port’s anti-harassment/discrimination policy to include commission members, which the policy had not previously covered. Zita voted in favor of the change.
During her term, protests erupted over the shipment of ceramic proppants used in fracking from the port, including blockages of railroad tracks in Olympia in 2016 and 2017 that resulted in a pepper-spray, flash-bang fueled law enforcement raids.
She notes as her accomplishments: installing electric vehicle chargers at the Olympia Farmers Market and getting port support for agricultural initiatives. She is most proud of “listening sessions” over cargo she initiated as a citizen and later embraced by the port. The result was “we didn’t get military cargo, we didn’t have riots, and no one got hurt. That was a change for the port”.
She still hopes for a port that is more open and accountable.
“We need to listen to the people. They can help us make better decisions. They can help keep us out of trouble. When we don’t listen to the broader view, too often we make mistakes”.
Zita also wants the port to resume showing its meetings online and to include written public comments from port minutes, which it had agreed to do in March 2020, only to do an about-face later in the year. She said that was done by two commissioners, without public discussion.
Her advice for a potential successor?
“I want to encourage young people to get out there and participate. I would not encourage young people to start with the port, because ports are really tough. I would be happy to talk with anyone who wants to run for my seat… about how important it is that you try to understand people you really disagree with.”
As of February 3, no one had filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission to run for her position.