For years, the little known and low-profile Board of Pilot Commissioners for ports in Galveston County has stayed mostly out of public view.
But lately, the board, which oversees the 16-member Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association, has found itself thrust into the spotlight, its powers challenged and its makeup questioned as fights rage over rising rates and fog delays greatly affecting waterfront commerce.
Cruise lines, the biggest revenue generators at the Port of Galveston, accuse ship pilots of using fog as an excuse to delay vessels from coming in and out of the island’s harbor.
Cruise line operators say an unusually high number of fog delays were in retaliation for their complaints about a sharp rate increase.
Some maritime industry members argue the Board of Pilot Commissioners isn’t so much regulating the ship pilots, as advocating for them. In turn, the commissioners say they’re following state statutes, carrying out their duties and have neither the authority nor the inclination to pressure ship pilots to move vessels in heavy fog.
As arguments have become more rancorous, Ted O’ Rourke, chairman of the Port of Galveston’s governing board, is seeking more representation and control of the five-member board of commissioners. But the board argues O’Rourke doesn’t understand the statutes or the process of a governing body that has exclusive jurisdiction over the piloting of vessels in the county.
WHO ARE THEY?
The members of the Board of Pilot Commissioners are Kenny Koncaba, Brad Boney, Henry Porretto, Trey Hill and Kelly Lovell.
Together, the five oversee the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association, whose ship pilot members charge a tariff on each foreign-flagged oil tanker, cruise passenger ship or other vessel they pilot into or out of ports in the county.
Maritime insiders for months have questioned how the five came to be appointed, with three of them having connections to Texan Bank, of which state Sen. Larry Taylor is the director and chairman of the board.
Koncaba is the CEO of Texan Bank, while Hill and, as of about two weeks ago, Lovell, are both on the bank’s board, Taylor said.
But the senator fervently denied assertions of any deliberate connection.
“It’s a weird deal the way it’s worked out, but it’s not orchestrated,” Taylor said. “I don’t make appointments.”
Instead, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott selects and appoints people who have applied to volunteer for a commission following an extensive vetting process, said Mac Walker, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
The governor’s office does sometimes seek Taylor’s opinion on candidates, Taylor said.
“Like any other government appointment, he’ll check with the local senator before he makes the final appointment,” Taylor said. “To make sure I don’t have a particular problem. That’s not in law, but it’s tradition.”
Of the other two commission members, Boney is a small-business owner, mediator and public relations and marketing consultant; Porretto is the former Galveston Police Department chief.
Members of the pilot commission serve two-year terms, officials said.
The appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.
A rate increase proposal for 30 percent over three years, which the pilots sought last year, drew a lawsuit from several shipping interests, including the port.
The pilots ultimately agreed and the board approved a one-year increase of 16 percent.
After several failed attempts to meet about fog delays, O’Rourke has said he now wants to take control of the Board of Pilot Commissioners, after first asking for representation.
“I am looking for our port to be the same as every other port in Texas,” O’Rourke said. “The port commission controls the pilots. That’s what we are looking for. Originally, I was just looking for representation, but after looking at things realistically, without some type of control, we will never be equal to other ports.”
The pilot commissioners, however, dispute O’Rourke’s claims.
“They can’t have it because the governor and state law says they can’t have it,” Porretto, the longest-serving pilot commissioner, said. “They can’t have it because they knew these type of things would come up, which is why the law is the way it is.”
HOW OTHER PORTS WORK
The crux of O’Rourke’s argument is that the Port of Galveston doesn’t have the same level of representation in deciding pilot matters that other ports around the state do.
Each of the state’s pilot commissioner boards are slightly different, governed by different sections of the Texas Transportation Code, but this assertion is technically true, according to maritime experts.
“Every port authority in the state has the ability to approve or disapprove of pilot rates impacting their facilities,” said Niels Aalund, senior vice president for maritime affairs with the West Gulf Maritime Association.
But each situation is different, officials said.
At ports such as Houston and Corpus Christi, the region’s pilot commission is comprised of members of the local port authority.
“But the governor, like what is done in Galveston, does appoint commissioners for the Sabine area of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, but public port authorities have the option to approve or disapprove of rate increases.”
Galveston is unique in being a city-owned entity as opposed to a regional port authority, like Houston, officials said.
“Every pilot commission along the Gulf Coast is different,” Porretto said. “They don’t even set rates the same.”
‘DOING THE RIGHT THING’
Several port officials, including O’Rourke, have criticized the pilot commissioners for rejecting a request for a joint meeting, instead inviting wharves trustees to one of their meetings, and for not being more assertive in making pilots move ships.
But commissioners said their duties were clearly outlined in Chapter 67 of the Texas Transportation Code.
“We are the group that oversees the tariff process and we hold pilots accountable for elisions and collisions through the pilot review board,” Boney said. “We are not pilots, we do not guide vessels in.”
The board does not have the authority to force pilots to move ships, Porretto said.
“As a commissioner, I don’t want to take away discretion from the operators,” Porretto said. “They are the ones making the decision. If I’m going on a trip, would I want to wait because of fog? No, I’m impatient. But it’s about us doing the right thing.”
The board recommends the number of pilots necessary to provide services for ports, determines pilotage rates and accepts applications for pilot licenses, among other duties, according to the statutes.
‘A SERIOUS SITUATION’
Despite weeks of rancor and several failed attempts to convene a meeting, recent events suggest a breakthrough may be on its way.
Members of the port pilots association Tuesday agreed to meet with shippers and port officials about fog delays, while the port’s governing board agreed to send two representatives to an upcoming pilot commission meeting.
The pilots have maintained they consider only safety when they make decisions about guiding ships to and from the port, but there has been persistent speculation that some of the delays have been in retaliation against those who opposed the rate increase.
The association does not face competition and has the authority to decide when it’s safe to guide ships in and out of ports.
The monopoly is allowed because pilots vying for business might otherwise take unnecessary risks and cause unsafe waterways.
Commissioners on Friday said they were doing their best to fulfill their duties under Chapter 67 of the transportation code, and that they declined the joint meeting invitation on advice from counsel.
“It’s a safety issue,” Porretto said. “We are facing political pressure because we are trying to follow the law, but we are doing the right thing, in my opinion.”
O’Rourke, meanwhile, has said he is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs.
“It’s gotten to the point where maybe we can try filing a business interruption claim,” O’Rourke said in a previous interview with The Daily News. “This is a serious situation.”
Members of the Port of Galveston’s governing board are considering moving the discussions to Austin.
Legislative action would be the first of its kind since the port and the pilots had a disagreement in 2013 over a bill former state Rep. Craig Eiland filed that would have reserved one spot on the five-member Board of Pilot Commissioners for someone on the wharves board.
But the bill ultimately wasn’t carried forward.