Galveston’s Wharves Board of Trustees voted 5-2 Monday to conduct a sociopolitical experiment into whether an important but somewhat detached public institution can become better integrated through a change of venue.
That wasn’t the actual motion on which the seven trustees who govern the Port of Galveston voted, of course, but it was the vote’s effect.
The actual vote was to move wharves board meetings from Shearn Moody Plaza, 123 25th St., to city hall, a few blocks south at 823 25th St., beginning in April for a six-month trial period. The vote came after almost a year of on-again, off-again debate.
As we argued in June, there were reasonable points on both sides of the question.
Some trustees, notably Elizabeth Beeton, had argued wharves board meetings are less accommodating to the public than they should be, which was true.
The meetings are held on the eighth floor of Shearn Moody Plaza, which is a privately owned building. As we noted in June, the place doesn’t feel much like a public venue, in the way city hall does, because it isn’t one.
Because of heightened security since Sept. 11, 2001, people entering the port offices have to pass through a cursory check. It’s not a burdensome process and apparently the port has removed some sign-in requirements since Beeton began lobbying for the move. That indicates the requirements were never really required in the first place, but that’s another issue.
The biggest problem, as we’ve argued before, is the meeting room is extremely small and dominated by a huge conference table.
The viewing public is relegated to a handful of chairs in what’s left of the room.
There’s another problem with the room. Most of the time when public bodies meet, the officials sit side-by-side facing the public. That traditional, perhaps ancient, arrangement indicates the business at hand is the public’s business to be conducted in full view of the public. It’s symbolic, but symbols are often important.
During wharves board meetings, officials face each other around the big table. Whether intended or not, that arrangement says clearly that this is our business, which the public may observe, but it’s our business.
On the other hand, opponents of the move note the burden on the port staff of having to haul everything and everybody they think they’ll need to city hall.
Everybody with actual work to do knows what pains meetings can be under the best of circumstances, and, clearly, holding them blocks from home wouldn’t make for the best of circumstances. So that worry was real and reasonable.
All that’s background with the vote Monday. The question now is whether the move to city hall will do any measurable good toward solving “the problem,” or maybe meeting “the challenge” would be fairer.
The challenge is that the port is a vital part of the city’s economy, culture and heritage, but it has for years been relegated to a back alley in the public mind.
The city government also bears some responsibility for that detachment, by tending to talk about and around the port rather than to the port’s appointed board.
We recall one time, for example, when the city council scheduled discussions about the port’s future, without bothering to tell the port about it.
Moving the show to city hall for six months won’t correct all of that, but maybe it will elevate the port’s profile a little in the public’s eye. If so, it will have been worth the effort.
• Michael A. Smith