In what became a tense meeting with some surprises, Mayor Jim Yarbrough on Thursday said he would ask city officials to review a 50-year-old ordinance that established the Galveston Park Board of Trustees and which gave the organization management duties over several city-owned properties.
Yarbrough raised the issue during a joint meeting of the city council and the park board in which he also took park board officials to task for “throwing the city under the bus” in a letter to federal officials about beach maintenance.
The park board, which oversees island tourism and manages various city properties, runs separately from the city and has its own budget. Although the city is in the process of reviewing all of its ordinances, the move to re-examine the one that created the park board could have more substantial effects and could lead to changes in how the city manages its assets.
During Thursday’s meeting, Yarbrough also raised concerns among park board officials and island residents by asserting the city should look at some of the park board’s money in reserves.
Decades have passed since the park board ordinance was put in place and it’s possible the needs of the community have changed since then, Yarbrough said at the meeting.
“When you look at the agreement you have between us, there hasn’t been much change that’s happened in 50 years,” Yarbrough said. “My life has changed a lot in 50 years.”
The city created the park board by ordinance in the late 1960s. The group is often considered the tourism branch of the city and is the recipient of millions of dollars in hotel occupancy taxes each year.
The park board manages beaches and parks such as Dellanera RV Park, Seawolf Park and Stewart Beach. It’s possible that some of the beaches might not be best managed by the park board anymore, Yarbrough said.
“In my mind, I’m not sure Seawolf Park is a tourist park,” Yarbrough said. “Is the park board the best place to manage Seawolf Park? I don’t know.”
After reviewing the ordinance, the council could determine that all of the assets managed by the park board are fine where they are, Yarbrough said. Reassessing who manages city properties, however, could lead to more efficiency in city government, he said.
“Some people would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Yarbrough said. “I come to the table saying, it may not be broke, but can we do it better?”
Yarbrough’s comments at the meeting weren’t entirely expected, park board Chairwoman Joyce Calver-McLean said. The meeting began by looking at ways to examine how to increase tourism profits during Galveston’s shoulder and offseasons.
“I was a bit taken by surprise, honestly,” she said. “Up until this point, the city and the park board have had a great partnership.”
Yarbrough took issue at the meeting over a letter he said the park board sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the letter, he said, the park board stated confusion over how the city and West End homeowners associations operate in regards to beach maintenance. That sort of communication is unacceptable, Yarbrough said.
“I’d be all over someone in the city if we went and threw the park board under the bus like this,” he said. “I resent the fact that you’re going to put it in there dogging the city. That’s not a partnership.”
Yarbrough also said at the meeting it’s possible some money in park board reserves could be better used elsewhere, since much of it goes untouched. The city could look at changing its policy so some of the reserves could be used for other projects, he said.
“We’ve got money to do the job,” Yarbrough said.
Some people at the meeting took issue with the possible loss of some reserves, which now surpass $8 million, McLean said. Much of the reserves are used by the board, especially in advancing money when asking for federal funds, park board Trustee Buzz Elton said.
“Please, when we’re looking at all of these things, please don’t just identify a source of funds that might look a little bit more than it should be,” he said. “Look at the source of the needs of those funds.”
Yarbrough needs to understand what reserves and hotel occupancy tax funds can be used for before any decisions are made, McLean said. Hotel occupancy tax funds are restricted under state law.
And efficiency isn’t a huge issue, she said.
“I think the details are what is going to be most important,” she said. “I can’t imagine that there are more ways to be efficient.”
Councilman Craig Brown, of District 2, who is also a trustee on the park board, said he appreciated Yarbrough’s comments.
“I look at this as a time that we really need to educate ourselves — both groups,” he said. “It’s time I think for this council and this community to educate themselves on how efficient these things are being accomplished for our city.”
Claire Reiswerg, a member of the park board Tourism Development Advisory Committee, said the park board has been incredibly efficient.
“People are really happy with what the park board has done in the last five years,” she said. “Any look at ‘efficiencies’ should be managed very, very carefully.”