A longstanding debate over the membership of the public board charged with overseeing ship pilots has moved to the Texas Legislature.
Texas Sen. Larry Taylor late Monday filed Senate Bill 1434, which proposes adding the directors of both the ports of Texas City and Galveston to the Board of Pilot Commissioners for Galveston County as ex-officio commissioners.
The proposed legislation applies only to the Galveston County pilot board, and, if approved, would take effect on Sept. 1, according to the bill.
Ted O’Rourke, the chairman of the Port of Galveston’s governing board and a longtime proponent of changing the board’s makeup, on Tuesday said he wasn’t aware of the bill, but hoped the board could discuss it at the next wharves board meeting.
For months, O’Rourke has led calls for more representation and control of the five-member Board of Pilot Commissioners for Galveston County, which oversees the 16-member Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association. Members of the pilots association guide vessels in and out of ports.
The Board of Pilot Commissioners for Galveston County has found itself thrust into the spotlight as fights erupt over rising rates and fog delays greatly affecting waterfront commerce.
The Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association’s 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.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott selects and appoints people to the board who have applied to volunteer for a commission after an extensive vetting process, officials said.
But while conversations between the two groups have been contentious, talks have quieted in recent months.
Legislative action regarding local pilot boards 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.
The most recent dispute has some roots in a rate increase proposed in 2017 by the pilots association, which does not face competition and has the authority to decide when it’s safe to guide ships in and out of ports.
The monopoly system is allowed on the belief that pilots vying for business might take unnecessary risks and cause unsafe waterways.
The Port of Galveston, Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises filed a lawsuit over the pilot board’s vote in August 2016 to increase rates 30 percent over three years.
They dropped the lawsuit after the pilot board amended the rate change to a one-year agreement that would increase rates by 16 percent.