Harris Co. commissioner wants Port shakeup

June 10, 2011 4:46:19 AM PDT
A powerful county commissioner is calling for the resignation of at least one member of the port commission. It's the latest in a 13 Undercover investigation into the Port of Houston.

Frustration is mounting about the way the folks at the port of plenty spend money, including on themselves.

Houston port commissioners don't get paid, but you can't put a price on prestige, the contacts it gives you. That's why some people fight like the dickens for these appointed jobs.

Jim Fonteno is one of the county's appointees.

"He may be getting another kind of communication fairly soon," Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said.

A move to remove him because of the growing port scandal.

"Do you think that's likely?" we asked him.

"Yes," Radack said.

A fight is clearly brewing.

"I think at this point that's premature," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

County commissioners have broad powers to remove their appointees, even just for inefficiency.

13 Undercover has exposed lots of questionable spending, possible conflicts of interest, possible nepotism.

It takes a majority of county commissioners to act. Behind closed doors, they've been told the port investigation is widening.

"As we've begun our review, we hear other allegations and then we have to stop and look at those allegations and that's just part of the scope of our review. It is expanding, I'll tell you that," Harris County Attorney Chief of Staff Robert Soard said.

Fonteno is one of two port commissioners who voted to benefit from the port's health insurance program that they had approved. Steve Phelps is the other.

"I think it was outrageous; if offered, it shouldn't have been accepted," Radack said.

The port didn't immediately admit the insurance deal, but now we know insurance for the two port commissioners cost the port about $25,000 a year.

"Should he stop?" we asked Radack.

"He shouldn't have ever started, so if he shouldn't have ever started, yeah he should stop," he replied.

"The policy was adopted by the entire port commission, so I don't see where any one port commissioner can point fingers at another for accepting it if they voted to approve it," Emmett said.

But now many of the ports contracts are under scrutiny, including Ship Channel construction deals.

"I would say the port lawyers are going to be pretty busy trying to justify some of the stuff that I don't think was done correctly," Radack said.

Don't be surprised if that showdown comes in the next few weeks, just as several port commissioners are heading south for the reopening of the Panama Canal.


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