Two things need to happen to right the ship at the Port of Galveston.
First, Port Director Rodger Rees needs to stop making mistakes with public money. Second, wharves board Chairman Ted O’Rourke needs to stop trying to run Rees off.
The Daily News would never criticize anyone for vigilant oversight of public finances. But there’s a line, fine perhaps, but discernible, between responsible government oversight and hacking somebody to bits.
And the whole show lately has been distracting from the larger picture and bigger issues that should be dragged into the light of day — such as how much public money will go toward building a third cruise terminal?
What’s the traffic control plan for said terminal? Will the third cruise terminal pay property taxes? What is the landlord port doing to diversify cargo and tenants so it doesn’t have all its eggs in the cruise industry basket?
There’s no doubt Rees has made some missteps since he began his job at the port in January 2018. Some of it could be chalked up to a learning curve. Some not so much.
On Tuesday at the regular meeting of the wharves board, which governs the port, Rees admitted he used a port credit card for personal expenses and used public money to give dozens of employees untaxed Christmas bonuses without board approval.
In the spirit of the benefit of the doubt, we’ll accept that Rees, who at $240,000 a year is well paid enough to buy his own groceries, made an honest mistake when he used a port credit card instead of his own at Kroger.
Rees apologized for the mistake and that should be enough.
There’s so much wrong with the $100 Christmas bonuses it’s best to just say everything was wrong with it.
There are specific rules governing bonuses for public employees. The port is a utility of the city. State law forbids city governments from giving bonuses to employees for past work. And cities can’t give holiday bonuses to employees unless such bonuses are included in the personnel policy at the beginning of the year. But city governments can give extra pay for expectation of increased productivity.
There also are problems about accounting for the money and reporting the income to the IRS.
In the past, when port directors sought to give bonuses, it was with the blessing of the board. Rees after the meeting told The Daily News he would seek board approval for any employee stipends such as the $100 holiday bonus.
There have been other issues, including Rees’ approval of a $64,000 consulting contract that was canceled because it violated port rules limiting the director’s spending to $50,000 without board consent.
One of the most interesting and rich notions from the meeting came from Trustees Elizabeth Beeton and Richard DeVries, who questioned whether it was proper for Mayor Jim Yarbrough and O’Rourke to review the minutiae of the port’s financial documents.
Rich, because Beeton is a well-known and respected watchdog of public funds who has been known to comb through reams of documented minutiae when she believes it’s warranted. Those who have fallen under her scrutiny have suffered more than Rees has.
The appropriate thing is for Rees to stop giving his enemy a stick with which to beat him. Perhaps “enemy” is a harsh word to describe O’Rourke, but the relationship is not amicable.
If this can’t be sorted out, it would be a crying shame. The wharves board hired Rees for his business acumen and Rees has delivered.
In 2018, the port posted operating revenues of $43.5 million and operating expenses of $35.5 million.
Since his appointment, port revenues have increased by 15.2 percent and expenses reduced by 6.7 percent compared with 2017. Net position increased by 5.5 percent for the same period.
Although it belongs to the residents of Galveston, the port is a self-supporting operation that doesn’t rely on tax money.
Until recently, it hadn’t lived up to its potential as a significant economic engine for the city. But the port has shown promising progress under Rees’ leadership.
It’s always appropriate to watch public assets with a sharp eye. But the port and the public would be better served if O’Rourke, with his passion for the public docks, and Rees, with his strong business sense, combined forces. Now, that would right the ship.
• Laura Elder