The conflict between Port of Galveston Director Rodger Rees and a couple of members of the Wharves Board of Trustees, which governs the public docks, indicate a need for open-government training.
Rees and Trustee Elizabeth Beeton and board Chairman Ted O’Rourke got crossways over Rees’ attempt to withhold documents produced by a consultant Rees had hired to survey port employees about their workplace.
Rees’ attempts to keep the documents away from Beeton included writing the Texas Attorney General’s Office for an opinion about whether the documents could be withheld from trustees.
The conflict never had anything to do with the Texas Open Records Act, however, which is what the attorney general’s office deals with when it issues opinions about public records.
Public officials, those elected and those, like wharves trustees, who are appointed by elected officials, have an absolute right by virtue of their offices to records held by the organizations they oversee. They don’t need to file a formal request as members of the general public can be required to do.
There might be some exceptions to that right, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be, and the work product of a consultant paid with public dollars certainly wouldn’t fall into that arcane category.
The fact that Rees didn’t know that is a little troubling. The port is a large public organization handling lots of public money and operating most of the time in close association with private sector operators that needn’t worry about the public’s rights. All of which is a formula for conflicts such as the one at hand.
If a request for records from a trustee can devolve into conflict, then it’s only a matter of time before a request from the public does too.
Port leaders and employees must be well informed about open government laws, or at least be religious about seeking advice from somebody who is. Neither of which seems to have been the case.
Rees’ explanation for having tried to keep those documents from trustees also indicates a misunderstanding of the transparency required of a public organization.
Rees defended himself by saying he was attempting to keep a promise to port employees that their responses to the survey would be kept confidential. His reluctance to break that promise was understandable, but he never should have made it in the first place because he was writing a check that he just couldn’t cover.
There are ways to protect employee identities in those sorts of surveys. Galveston’s public school district did a massive review years ago and collected reams of employee comments that were frank, to put it mildly, and also anonymous because they had been compiled that way.
Had anybody consulted the board or the port’s attorney before launching the review, this whole brew-up probably could have been avoided.
It appears this fracas, which was microscopic compared to some occurring at the port over the years, will blow over with everyone still intact, which is good because there are so many other important things to get done there.
At the same time, though, the wharves board should hold a meeting, as O’Rourke suggested, to talk about legal requirements and its own expectations about the administration’s openness and transparency. And the wharves board should arrange for port staff members to sit through one of the open-government training sessions the attorney general’s office offers.
• Michael A. Smith