Calhoun Port Authority spends more than $400K fighting Texas Open Meetings lawsuit

Calhoun Port Authority employees talk after a ship arrives.

An appellate court Thursday dismissed a lawsuit against the Calhoun Port Authority, ruling former Congressman Blake Farenthold’s resignation as a lobbyist had made the case irrelevant.

Justices of the 13th Court of Appeals ruled that because Farenthold had resigned Jan. 4, a trial or any further court action was unnecessary in a lawsuit filed by the Victoria Advocate.

“Because those decisions have already been effectively reversed, there is no live case or controversy ... Accordingly, we conclude that all of the Advocate’s claims are now moot,” states the opinion.

The 13th Court of Appeals wrote that its dismissal was based on the prior resignation of former congressman Blake Farenthold as a lobbyist for the Calhoun Port Authority.

The Advocate’s lawsuit, was filed in May 2018, contended board members of the Calhoun Port Authority broke the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to properly notify the public of its decision to hire Farenthold.

The opinion issued Thursday included no judgment about whether port board members had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. It also contained no judgment about a prior ruling by District Judge Bobby Bell that would have sent the case to trial in September. Thursday’s opinion was an answer to an an appeal requested by port attorneys to Bell’s ruling.

In May 2018, the disgraced former congressman took a lobbyist position that came with a $160,000 annual salary at the port after resigning from Congress.

That resignation came two weeks after it was revealed he had paid $84,000 of taxpayers’ money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee.

John Griffin, an attorney representing the Advocate, said the newspaper was not seeking monetary damages. Rather, it was asking the port to pay for attorney and court fees, as well as publicly recognize the importance of the open meetings issues raised in its lawsuit.

Court fees for the public port reached in excess of $410,000 while the newspaper’s fees rose to a little more than $95,000. The case’s dismissal meant each side would be responsible for its own legal expenses.

“I think it’s a loss for everyone because of the amount of money that was spent on lawyers,” said District 1 Board Member Shields A. “Tony” Holladay Sr., who spoke for himself and not the entire port authority’s board. “On my end, it is tax money, and my (job) is to make money for the taxpayer.” Holladay added he did not think the Advocate’s lawsuit was justified.

The board’s remaining members declined to comment or could not be reached. Port attorneys also did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Luis De La Garza, a 59-year-old Port Lavaca resident who is challenging board chairman Randy Boyd in the May 4 election, said that although he saw no winners, he also viewed taxpayers as the ultimate losers.

“The case was dissolved,” he said, adding, “The only losers in this entire case were the taxpayers. I pleaded numerous times with the port board to settle.”

De La Garza said, if elected, he would practice better stewardship of tax dollars. He also worried that some board members would attempt to spin the opinion as a victory.

“There is no victory,” he said.

The Advocate’s attorney also lamented the costs, but he emphasized the importance in protecting the open meetings act.

“In a perfect world, the party that vindicated the public’s right to know in a meaningful way wouldn’t bear any financial burden,” he said. “But it’s a burden ... that’s worth paying.”

Griffin also pointed out that port board members could have avoided the costly legal battle simply by removing Farenthold from office after the lawsuit was filed May 21, 2018. Instead, it dragged on for almost a year.

He also considered Farenthold’s resignation as a lobbyist as a victory.

Although Griffin said the opinion meant the port and newspaper would return to their respective businesses, he added he thought the Advocate would again return to the legal battlefield if it felt the public’s right to know was again violated.

“When a governmental entity such as the port’s directors attempt to keep the public in the dark about major decisions,” Griffin said, “the Advocate will be there to represent the public.”

The 13th Court of Appeals issued this order dismissing the Calhoun Port Authority-Victoria Advocate lawsuit on Thursday.

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Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

(8) comments

George Schwarz Staff
George Schwarz

Thanks for fighting the good fight, Chris and the rest of the Advocate management. The port authority's behavior looked enough like a violation of the OMA that a judge thought it should go to trial. The appellate court ruling is disappointing, but not nearly as disappointing as the arrogance and hubris of the port authority.

People who lack the understanding of the issues around this case and the Advocate's role are a sad commentary on the intelligence and understanding of journalism in a democracy.

Grace Butler

Eloquently put, as usual George.

Terry Smith

I would like to personally like to thank the Victoria Advocate for wasting over $410,000 of the tax payers money, causing innocent people undue stress, impeding progress and numerous other problems just because the Advocate wants to push its liberal agenda. Even in failure, the Advocate still tries to push its chosen candidate. Maybe you should have wisely used the $95,000 to pay your employees decent wages instead of trying to save us from the big bad people who have a different political view than you. Victoria deserves better. You lose.

AdvocateEditorialBoard Staff
Victoria Advocate Editorial Board

We don't have the power to compel the Calhoun Port Authority to hire an Austin attorney for $400 an hour. All the port board had to do from the outset was acknowledge the hiring was illegal, call a new meeting with the proper notice to the public, and hire Mr. Farenthold again if that it was it wished to do. The board did not have to spend any money on legal fees.

Terry Smith

Trying to post but get a message that my post appears to be spam. Are you filtering post that you don't like?

AdvocateEditorialBoard Staff
Victoria Advocate Editorial Board

There is a brief caching display from the time a reader posts a comment and the time it appears live on the site. Thank you for contributing to the community conversation, even if you don't support our position in favor of open government.

Glenn Wilson

The VA's lawsuit wasn't about Farenholdt being hired by the Port, but the secretive way in which it was done. Farenholdt's departure did nothing to change that, so how did the issue become "moot"? Good try VA. IMO you did the right thing.

AdvocateEditorialBoard Staff
Victoria Advocate Editorial Board

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