Texas lawmakers consider bill that would remove majoriy of Houston port commissioners from office

April 10, 2013 8:15:24 PM PDT
On Thursday morning, state lawmakers will vote on a bill that would sweep a majority of Houston port commissioners out of office. The proposed legislation is part of a statewide port reform effort that started with a 13 Undercover investigation more than two years ago.

The Port of Houston's come a long way since opening in 1914 -- a lot of proud moments there. The port turns 100 years old next year.

But as we look back in history, we can't find a single time when lawmakers got so fed up with the way the port is run that they threw out the board of commissioners.

"I think that Texas politics has changed significantly. But I think the Port of Houston hasn't," State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) said.

After 21 months of state investigation, a reform commission says it's time to push five of the seven longest-serving commissioners out of their jobs in the next two years.

Bonnen is pushing the reform.

"We believe it's time for new blood and new opportunities at the port," he said.

Not surprisingly, there's evidence some port commissioners don't see it that way. Take 13-year Commissioner Kase Lawal as an example: Lawal was last reappointed to the port board in the midst of a 2011 UN investigation into his alleged role in an attempted gold purchase from a wanted Congolese warlord. Lawal's company denied any wrongdoing.

Just last year, Lawal and his family gave State Rep. Carol Alvarado $30,000 in campaign dollars. She's on the committee overseeing the port reform. Port Chairman Janeice Longoria has donated $12,500 to Alvarado since the port's been under investigation.

One of the sticking points is whether Longoria can keep her position or will be swept off too. To Alvarado's credit, even with all those donations she voted to support changes.

But that's not all.

"The real pressure is coming from the small cities and the city of Pasadena," Bonnen said.

their port commissioner is Jimmy Burke. He's been there since 1999 and isn't certain he's ready to leave.

"I thoroughly enjoy the work. I feel like I'm making a contribution, feel like I have through the years," Burke said.

"Is it time for new blood?" we asked him.

"It could be in some instances," he said.

Burke says the smaller cities along the Houston Ship Channel should be allowed to reappoint him for as long as they want. A parade mayors -- from Baytown, Pasadena, Morgan's Point, Deer Park, Shore Acres and Pasadena -- came to Austin in March to defend Burke.

"Mr. Burke keeps getting reappointed because Mr. Burke answers my phone calls," Baytown Mayor Stephen Doncarlos said.

All the small city mayors there that day opposed the plan - so did the chairman of the port economic alliance. That group's CEO was at the hearing too opposing the bill -- a man named Chad Burke.

"It turns out they're father and son and it's indicative of the problem," Bonnen said.

The Economic Alliance-Houston Port Region received $1.6 million of public port money since Chad Burke became CEO in 2008. Chad himself makes $125,000 a year as CEO of the economic development group. It's funded by the port and businesses that do business with the port.

Commissioner Jimmy Burke says he abstains from the port votes related to the alliance, but the Texas Sunset Commission records show that doesn't always happen and he has voted to send money toward his son's group.

We asked the economic alliance about the conflict, they sent us a statement that didn't point to any policy or rules about how they deal with it. They simply said that Chad Burke represents the interests of their members, and he'll continue to do so.

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