Port of Galveston Director Rodger Rees in recent weeks attempted to keep members of the Wharves Board of Trustees, the government body that hired him, from seeing documents produced by a consultant that Rees hired to survey port employees about their workplace.
Rees’ attempts to withhold the documents went as far as to write the Texas Attorney General’s Office for an opinion about whether the documents could be withheld from trustees. The port director ultimately capitulated last week and sent the documents to trustees.
But the incident left Rees defending himself, saying he was attempting to keep a promise he made to port employees, while board members said they expected to have a public discussion about openness and transparency of the port’s administration.
The dispute between Rees and the board began in mid-March, when Trustee Elizabeth Beeton requested information about an employee survey that Rees had commissioned late last year from Chrysalis Partners, a Houston-based corporate consulting agency.
Beeton requested information about the survey after learning about it in a meeting of the port’s executive committee, a wharves board sub-committee that includes her, Rees, Trustee Todd Sullivan and Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell.
In an interview Friday, Beeton said she didn’t know about the consultant until the committee meeting and wanted Rees to provide copies of communications with the consultants and in particular wanted more information about the consultant’s suggestion that the board participate in a “facilitated work session” to address a “perceived misalignment” between port staff and the wharves board.
That sounded like something that would cost money, Beeton said.
“There were no questions asked about the board, yet one of the solutions was that we needed to get alignment between the board and the administration,” Beeton said. “The thing that I was looking for was how did we get from this employee survey, which is a standard employee survey, to a recommendation from the consultant that we need to get the board and the administration ‘aligned.’”
The Wharves Board of Trustees did not vote to hire Chrysalis, officials said.
Rees hired the group — which on its website advertises its ability to build “an inspired future” by hosting a “combination of strategic leadership sessions, coaching, capacity building programs and practices” — under a port rule that allows him to enter into contracts of up to $50,000 without the board’s approval.
Beeton made the request for the correspondence in an email on March 21, three days after the executive committee meeting. On March 24, Rees told Beeton he would not provide her with the emails because they contained raw data and confidential responses from port employees.
Beeton in response, asked Rees to send the information to Tony Brown, the port’s attorney, so any confidential information could be redacted and then shared. Rees refused again and told Beeton he would release the documents only if directed to by the entire board.
Rees’ request came less than 72 hours before the wharves board’s scheduled meeting on March 26 and was not on that meeting’s agenda. However, on March 25, Rees emailed Beeton, promising to release all of the information to the board during a meeting the next day. He repeated that promise to board members again during a break in that March 26 board meeting.
That didn’t happen. Instead, on March 27, Rees directed a port employee to write to the Texas Attorney General’s Office seeking a ruling on whether the documents would have to be released.
AN AG CHALLENGE
The Daily News obtained a copy of the March 27 letter, written by Laura Camcioglu, the port’s director of administration, from the attorney general’s office.
Camcioglu wrote the port’s administration wanted to withhold the records because the “port requested our employees’ honesty/candid response so we could understand ongoing issues in order to address them.”
“Because of such, we committed to anonymity and confidentiality,” Camcioglu said.
Appeals to the attorney general are a common tactic used by government entities wanting to withhold documents under the state’s open records laws. However, unlike typical appeals, Camcioglu’s letter did not cite a part of Texas law that would allow Rees to withhold the documents.
The appeal struck a nerve among board members, and wharves board Chairman Ted O’Rourke on March 29 called for a special meeting for April 3. The board’s agenda item called for a vote about ordering Rees to turn over the documents.
“It was poor, their request, they didn’t cite any exceptions because they didn’t have a lawyer do it or anyone who had any background with open records,” Beeton said. “They submitted this to the attorney general and they said ‘We didn’t want to turn it in because it’s sensitive, but they didn’t provide any exceptions to the open records law.”
The special meeting and the potential public confrontation never happened. It was canceled on April 1.
On Thursday, April 4, Rees told The Daily News he turned over the documents to avoid prolonging the disagreement. By that point, Brown had already told him and the wharves board members that Beeton had a right to see the documents — and that Rees had no standing to challenge releasing them.
“My understanding is that she was acting in her capacity as the chair of the board’s executive committee,” Brown said in an interview. “It’s my personal legal opinion, which was conveyed to staff that a request like this for records by a trustee acting in her official capacity was not covered by the Public Information Act.”
Still, Rees defended his decision to try to withhold the documents, saying it was an attempt to keep a promise he had made to port employees to keep the documents confidential.
“When I first came here, I just got a sense that the morale from employees was low,” he said. “We had told employees when we started to do this to please be honest with us and that information would be kept confidential. We’re just trying to make this port a better place to work.”
Rees said he couldn’t cite examples of comments by port employees that made him concerned about an individual being identified and embarrassed, and said there were no plans to have Chrysalis hold a facilitated workshop.
Rees also said part of his hesitation was that he was taken aback by the suddenness of Beeton’s request for information about the consulting contact. Both he and Beeton also noted that, before coming to Galveston, Rees worked as mostly a chief financial officer who did not often have to act on public records requests.
It’s unclear what fallout, if any, there will be from Rees’ resistance to turning over the records.
Rees was hired by the wharves board in January 2018, and has been lauded publicly for his work in getting projects moving, including signing a memorandum of understanding with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to build a $100 million cruise terminal.
Beeton met with Rees on Friday and said her concerns about the records fight had been “mollified.” Although after reviewing emails between Rees and the consultants she had originally requested, she could not identify information that should have been considered confidential, she said.
O’Rourke said he was disappointed that it took a long time to resolve the issue, and said the board would talk about its records policies at an upcoming meeting.
He also expected trustees to ask Rees for more information about the consultants he has hired and what they’ve been directed to do, O’Rourke said.
“I’m puzzled why there was all this resistance,” O’Rourke said. “If a trustee asks for something, you have to get her what’s available.”