Applications by seven federally licensed ship pilots for the right to guide vessels into local ports could be headed to litigation, said an attorney representing the Board of Pilot Commissioners, to which the applications were made.

The group submitted applications for state licenses in August and is claiming the commissioners are trying to stonewall the process.

“It looks like they are trying to put additional requirements on the applications that weren’t required before we submitted them,” Justin Renshaw, an attorney representing the federal pilots, said.

Renshaw asserts the only thing the federal pilots were required to do initially was fill out a paper application.

Some further requirements, which Renshaw said he had been unaware of, include a deputy pilot’s checklist, a merchant marine physical examination report and a physician physical examination form.

The Board of Pilot Commissioners, a five-member panel appointed by the governor, has historically granted state licenses only to members of the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association.

The 16-member association charges a tariff on each oil tanker, cruise passenger ship or other vessel its members pilot into or out of ports in the county. Tariff rates and licenses must be approved by the pilot commissioners. The pilots association does not face competition, a system predicated on the belief that pilots vying for business may take unnecessary risks and cause unsafe waterways.

Representatives for the pilot commissioners said they were concerned about the potential for a lawsuit over the federal pilot applications and referred questions about the issue to Assistant Attorney General John Langley — who represents the board.

Langley said he could not comment because he thinks litigation may be forthcoming.

The applicants assert the pilot trade in Texas is being controlled by monopolies.

The applications state that the “Texas Constitution provides, among other things, that ‘Perpetuities and monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free government, and shall never be allowed, nor shall the law of primogeniture or entailments ever be in force in this State.’”

The federal pilots learned through a Nov. 18 letter about what they regard as additional requirements set by the board, Renshaw said.

Paxton Crew, an attorney for the Galveston-Texas City pilots, disagreed with Renshaw’s assessment of the requirements.

“The application process is nothing new, and I cannot comment on why he would think it is,” Crew said.

Pilots are commissioned by the governor and are recommended by the board of commissioners after an application review process and a deputy training program, Crew said.

Renshaw in the past has represented Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, which both sail from the island port, in disputes with the pilot association over rates.

The applications come at a controversial time. The pilots association has proposed a rate hike opposed by the shipping industry, cruise lines and the Port of Galveston. Pilots introduced a three-year plan that would increase rates by 30 percent by the final year, compared to today’s rates. Pilots argue the rate hike is necessary for upgrading aging boats, hiring deckhands to improve safety and renovating their station on Pelican Island.

“I think it is important to know about the applicants,” Crew said. “Do any of these applicants have prior convictions for DWI or drug use? Without that information, how can a pilot board make an informed decision?”

A hearing on the applications is scheduled for Jan. 13.

Contact reporter Matthew deGrood at 409-683-5230 or matthew.degrood@galvnews.com

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