The Calhoun Port Authority spent more on a conference in San Francisco this year than it did on one in South America last year.
Receipts the Victoria Advocate obtained via a public information request show that attending the conference June 18-20 cost the port about $25,000. That’s up from the about $19,000 it cost to attend a conference hosted by the same organization Oct. 7-10 in Valparaíso, Chile.
The biggest expenses this year were the hotel, registering for the conference and “board service fees.”
The port director, three board members and the board members’ wives attended last year. This year, the port director and five board members attended.
Using a calculator, board member Jasper “Jay” Cuellar, who was elected in May, figured the port paid a few hundred dollars less per port representative this year than it did last year.
This year, they flew coach and checked into the Grand Hyatt the day before the conference began. That is where the conference was held.
Luis De La Garza, who also was elected to be a board member in May, said this conference impressed on him the importance of widening and deepening the Matagorda Ship Channel.
“Right now, the ships are getting bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where we have ships that aren’t even able to go through the Panama Canal,” he said.
De La Garza said he also learned about why it is was necessary for ports to protect themselves from cyberattacks and natural disasters and mingled with those who represent the Port of Brownsville.
“Right now, we’re working on our bylaws. Making these contacts, I’m able to call them and ask them to send me a copy of their bylaws,” he said.
The Calhoun port doesn’t currently have bylaws.
The Legislature created the port board in the 1950s and gave it a wide latitude to operate the port how it saw fit. The port board took advantage of that until the public learned in May 2018 it had hired disgraced former Congressman Blake Farenthold as a lobbyist. It also later came out that the port board paid itself for attending meetings and conferences such as the one in San Francisco.
Those payments are what are called the “board service fees,” and they are still in effect. The receipts show each board member received $1,000 in board service fees for this conference. The port registered the board members for the conference and booked the flight and hotel using a credit card, so the board members were not reimbursed.
The Advocate did an analysis of board services based on public records last year that showed J.C. Melcher Jr. and A. Shields “Tony” Holladay Sr. had each received more than $90,000 in board service fees since 2008.
De La Garza was quoted by the newspaper then as being against board service fees, but he has changed his mind.
“I thought we were getting paid a lot. I did think that, but after talking with other commissioners around the country, we’re being underpaid. I do not see us changing that,” he said during an interview last week with the Advocate.
Cuellar said the board service fees are not the reason he’s on the board, but he does think they serve a purpose.
“When I spend four or five days of my time and my family’s time away from home, there should be some balance of some sort,” he said.
Regardless, Cuellar and De La Garza said board members thought about how much they were spending while in San Francisco. They said they opted to go to less expensive restaurants and no alcohol was charged to the port.
“There were no black-tie affairs, I guarantee you,” Cuellar said.
“Every single penny that comes into the port belongs to the taxpayer, and we need to be good stewards,” De La Garza added.
Steve Ellis, the vice president of nonprofit watchdog group “Taxpayers for Common Sense,” said he’s often asked about congressional delegations and viewed this port expense through a similar lens.
For example, Ellis wondered whether the conference was taking place somewhere one would go on vacation or somewhere with a similar port the Calhoun Port Authority can learn from.
“Is it packed with informative sessions and field trips, or is it pretty vapid?” Ellis asked.
According to the conference’s agenda, one field trip available to the attendees was to the Port of San Francisco.
The Port of San Francisco generates $106 million in revenue annually, according to a strategic plan it posted online, while the Calhoun Port’s net revenue for fiscal year 2019 was about $3 million. The Port of San Francisco has 500 tenants and historic buildings on its property, such as Alcatraz Landing, while the Calhoun Port Authority’s biggest taxpayer is Formosa, according to its most recent audit.
“There are legitimate trips where officials learn,” Ellis said, “but there are also boondoggles that are more about paying for officials to take a vacation.”
Cuellar said he didn’t tour the Port of San Francisco.
“It wouldn’t be apples to apples. Theirs is a much more commercial port with passenger vessels and that type of stuff. It’s not chemicals and products like we do,” he said.
Ellis suggested that, in the future, the port send fewer people to such events.
“It would seem to me that the port director and one or two commissioners makes the most sense. Most of the presentations are online, and the director and commissioners can relay what they learned to the others,” he said.
The Advocate contacted all the board members this past week, but only De La Garza and Cuellar responded by deadline. In the May election, the pair ousted longtime incumbents on a platform of promising board reform.
“I think it’s important, especially for us new folks, to get an understanding beyond just the port commissioners and staff that we have here,” Cuellar said. “I think we need to be aware of what goes on in the nation. The port’s got a big responsibility and a big budget, and we need knowledgeable people to manage that.”