The Port of Galveston’s governing board spent time this week interviewing two port director finalists and plans to have someone in the position by Jan. 1, well before the organization will have a strategic plan in place.

That sequence of events is the opposite of what Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough had been advocating since just after former Port Director Michael Mierzwa retired last year. Yarbrough, who serves on the Wharves Board of Trustees, had wanted the strategic plan done first and then to hire the port director candidate best suited to see it through, he has said.

“In an ideal world, from my perspective, I would have liked to have a strategic plan vetted by the community stakeholders in advance of a search for a port director,” Yarbrough said. “The reason for that is that we as a community need to dictate where we want the port to go.”

After Mierzwa retired, the wharves board, which governs the publicly owned port, appointed Peter Simons interim director at an annual salary of $200,000. Trustees had long said Simons might be in the position for some time while a strategic plan was being formed.

That changed in June when Trustee Ted O’Rourke was named chairman and vowed to have a new director working by Jan. 1.

Despite the change in priority, as Jan. 1 nears, some trustees said that deadline might be unrealistic.

“Jan. 1 is probably unrealistic to have a new port director here,” Trustee Elizabeth Beeton said. “We will hopefully take action at the December meeting and possibly have someone hired Jan. 1, but I don’t think they’ll be here.”

O’Rourke, however, remained confident a port director could be in place by the start of the year.

“I’m still hoping for Jan. 1,” O’Rourke said. “I really am. I’m hoping we can get the full support of the board for whoever we pick.”

Vice Chairman Albert Shannon took a middle road, saying he was hopeful that someone would be in place by then, but was unwilling to commit to it.

“I think it’s feasible,” Shannon said. “I would estimate we will at least have someone hired, but as to whether they’re on the job Jan. 1 or not, I’m not sure of that.”

Port officials Nov. 17 announced that two finalists remained in the search for the next port director. Those were Rodger Rees, the deputy executive director and chief financial officer of Canaveral Port Authority; and Kristine Zortman, vice president of neighborhood investment for Civic San Diego and a former principal of commercial assets at the Port of San Diego, said Anthony Brown, the port’s attorney.

Trustees Wednesday interviewed those two finalists for a second time.

The wharves board’s next scheduled meeting is Dec. 18, which would be exactly two weeks before Jan. 1 for trustees to negotiate and the selected candidate to give notice if trustees took action. A special meeting is another possibility, which would require 72 hours of notice.

Selecting a port director will come before trustees finish developing a strategic plan.

Yarbrough and O’Rourke have long been proponents of developing a strategic plan and then hiring a search firm to help them find a permanent port director.

Yarbrough in 2016 criticized the port for lacking a clear mission. He said he wanted the wharves board to be patient in selecting a new director, speculating it could be a year before someone is hired. He said he would rather wait until the port completed a master plan that the next permanent director could implement.

“Once we as a collective community decide where we need to go, then we can go out and hire someone with that skill set,” Yarbrough said. “Versus the reverse, where you hire someone who is good at the cruise ship business and then have the community say they want to go toward container terminals. Those skillets don’t match up.”

Beeton said there were pros and cons with either method.

“It would be a benefit to the board to have a good plan in place so the board could look for someone well-suited to execute that plan,” Beeton said. “On the other hand, the new director may have valuable insight on what the plan should be.”

Ultimately, the current schedule came down to timing and the wish to have someone in place by Jan. 1, O’Rourke said.

The wharves board in August hired Shey-Harding Associates to lead the port director search. Shey-Harding Associates’ fee is 25 percent of the selected port director’s salary plus up to $7,000 in expenses. On Sept. 11 it hired John Manlove of John Manlove Marketing & Communications for about $10,300 to develop a strategic plan.

Trustees have slowed down the strategic plan process to accommodate a new port director, Shannon said.

“It will be more meaningful for the port director to actively be a part of that process,” Shannon said. “It bodes well for the board and new port director that is chosen if he is part of the long-term vision.”

The plan may have changed, but no one was directly opposed to Yarbrough’s initial requests to develop a strategic plan and select a port director, O’Rourke said.

Trustees altered the plan because they felt the need to achieve a planned Jan. 1 date to have a port director in place and because it takes time to build consensus, Yarbrough said.

“Ideally, we would have started the strategic plan two years ago and be further down the road,” Yarbrough said. “But it takes time to get people in sync, to where everyone understands, and build consensus. We are finally getting there.”

Matt deGrood: 409-683-5230; matt.degrood@galvnews.com

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