October 2015 Bar Bulletin
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October 2015 Bar Bulletin

SeaTac Wins Dogfight over Airport Minimum Wage: Court splits over dueling statutory interpretations

By Gene Barton


By the slimmest of margins, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision on August 20 that the City of SeaTac's $15 minimum wage law ("Proposition I"), adopted by city voters in November 2013, does, indeed, apply to employees at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.1 The crucial determination came down to divining legislative intent in the language of RCW 14.08.330, part of the Revised Airports Act of 1945 (the "Act").

The majority opinion, penned by Justice Susan Owens, reversed the ruling of King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas, holding that Proposition I did not run afoul of the Act's provision conferring "exclusive jurisdiction and control" of the Airport to the Port of Seattle, i.e., the "municipality ... controlling and operating" the Airport.2 As found by the majority, "We conclude that Proposition I can be applied at the airport because there is no indication that it will interfere with airport operations."3

The minority, led by Justice Debra Stephens, begged to differ: "[T]he plain language of ... RCW 14.08.330 compels the result that the municipality controlling and operating an airport has exclusive jurisdiction and control over the airport, and the municipality in which the airport is located has no police jurisdiction of the airport."4

Three of the four sentences comprising RCW 14.08.330 were at issue. These provide, in relevant part:

Every airport ... controlled and operated by any municipality ... shall, subject to federal and state laws, rules, and regulations, be under the exclusive jurisdiction and control of the municipality ... controlling and operating it.... No other municipality in which the airport ... is located shall have any police jurisdiction of the same or any authority to charge or exact any license fees or occupation taxes for the operations. However, by agreement with the municipality operating and controlling the airport ..., a municipality in which an airport ... is located may be responsible for the administration and enforcement of the uniform fire code ... on that portion of any airport ... located within its jurisdictional boundaries.5

The question placed before the Court was whether Proposition I conflicted with the Port of Seattle's jurisdiction over the Airport under RCW 14.08.330.6

Citing the jurisprudence of statutory interpretation, the majority stated, "[W]e must try to harmonize municipal ordinances with state law when possible; we will invalidate an ordinance only if it 'directly and irreconcilably conflicts' with state law."7 In this respect, the Court considered "whether the meaning of (the) statute is plain on its face or whether it is ambiguous, and found the statute's "exclusive jurisdiction and control"" language to be ambiguous.8

The Court paraphrased the Port's argument to the effect that "the 'exclusive jurisdiction' language means the Port of Seattle has the sole and undivided authority to regulate any matter that occurs"" at the Airport, given the Port's contention that SeaTac "does not have the statutory authority to regulate any matters occurring at"" the Airport.9 Therein, the Court found an ambiguity, stating:

[R]eading the statute's [first and third] sentences together, it is unclear what the legislature intended to grant the Port of Seattle "exclusive jurisdiction and control" over. The statute does not say "any matters." If the legislature meant for the Port of Seattle to have "exclusive jurisdiction and control" over every conceivable matter that occurred at the airport, then the statute's subsequent sentence, detailing that "[n]o other municipality [etc.]," would be superfluous.... By saying that municipalities in which airports are located may not charge license fees or occupation taxes, the legislature implied that there are matters that municipalities can regulate. Since the statute is unclear regarding what exactly the legislature intended to grant the Port of Seattle "exclusive jurisdiction and control" over, we find the statute ambiguous.10

SeaTac argued "that the legislature intended to give the Port of Seattle jurisdiction only over airport operations."" The Port argued that the legislative intent was "to prohibit any city of SeaTac law or regulation from applying at the ... Airport."" The Court rejected the Port's interpretation "because we find it, among other things, incompatible with a special purpose district's limited powers."11

In this respect, the Court contrasted "the broadest powers of local self-
government"" afforded cities under RCW 35A.01.010 with those of a special purpose district such as the Port, which "is limited in its powers to those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted, and also those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation.""12

The limited powers granted to municipalities such as the Port that establish or acquire airports are set forth in RCW 14.08.120. The Port urged the Court "to interpret this statute, in combination with RCW 14.08.330's grant of 'exclusive jurisdiction,' as a law that strips the city of SeaTac of all police power-that is, all of its normal authority to regulate in the interests of public health and safety-at the airport."13

The Court declined to do so. It noted that RCW 14.08.120(2) contemplates that a municipality such as the Port would use "its normal rule-making authority and procedures to enact and enforce airport-
specific rules, and the Port of Seattle's normal authority does not include the exercise of general police powers."14 Rather:

Outside the airport context, a port district's rule-making authority is subordinate to the authority of the municipality in which it is situated. While any port district "may formulate all needful regulations for the use ... of any properties or facilities owned or operated by it,"" those regulations "must conform to and be consistent with the ordinances of the city or town"" in which the district is located.15

Here, the Court found a "fundamental difference between the powers"" of the Port and SeaTac. If the Court were to adopt the Port's argument, "we would have to conclude that the legislature intended the (Act) to deprive the city of SeaTac of all its police powers at the airport, even though the Port of Seattle lacks the authority to fill this regulatory gap through its normal rule-making authority.""16

Digging deeper into the Act, the Court acknowledged that "the language of RCW 14.08.330 plainly denies the city of SeaTac some authority,"" but found that "the overall statutory scheme and the purposes underlying the ... Act ... suggest" that the statute only denies the city "authority over airport operations and the subject of aeronautics, as opposed to 'any matters occurring'"" at the Airport.17

The first italicized reference is based on the language of RCW 14.08.340, under which the "legislature expressly instructed that the purpose of the statutory scheme is to ensure uniformity in the laws regarding aeronautics.""18 Combined with RCW 14.08.120(1), which provides that airport municipalities may establish a board responsible for various airport operations, the Court concluded that within "the statutory scheme ... the legislature intended to vest authority for the operation of the airport exclusively with the Port of Seattle, but not to prohibit a local municipality like the city of SeaTac from regulating for the general welfare in a manner unrelated to airport operations.""19

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