The Calhoun Port Authority rejected Monday a longstanding offer to end a Texas Open Meetings Act lawsuit filed by the Victoria Advocate.
Board Chairman Randy Boyd said he was forced to call the meeting after receiving the offer in public from Advocate editor and publisher Chris Cobler.
But the attorney representing the Advocate in this matter, John W. Griffin Jr., said he has repeatedly offered to end the lawsuit since filing it May 21. He said the meeting Monday was for show.
“It was never intended to be a good-faith discussion about the port’s position or resolving this case,” Griffin said. “It’s OK for people to be stubborn and want to vindicate principle, but it’s quite another to invite the other party to make an offer and spend only three minutes to blow it off.”
That’s about how long the meeting lasted.
The Advocate’s position from the lawsuit’s outset has been that the port board needs to acknowledge it did not properly notify the public of its intention to hire former Congressman Blake Farenthold for a newly created position of lobbyist and pay the newspaper’s attorney’s fees for filing the suit on the public’s behalf.
The port hired Farenthold, who resigned from Congress rather than face sexual harassment complaints, at an annual salary of $160,000. He worked for the port from May to January before resigning.
Boyd said he called the special meeting because of an exchange with Cobler at the Port Lavaca Rotary Club.
Skip Sockell sent Cobler an email in January inviting him to speak to the Rotary Club. Sockell said he had read an editorial in the Advocate that he thought was in line with the Rotary’s theme of the year, which is “engage with the community.”
After Cobler spoke, Boyd asked the first question and asked several more before acting Rotary Club president Jan Regan told him to stop, saying the port chairman was not acting appropriately. When Boyd asked what it would take for the newspaper to settle the lawsuit, Regan cut him off and stopped the line of questioning.
Boyd described the exchange at the start of Monday’s meeting.
“A question was asked from the crowd about what it would take to settle this lawsuit. Mr. Cobler said he was willing to answer that question, although it was stopped as a political question at Rotary. I stayed at Rotary until the meeting ended and confronted (him),” Boyd said.
The Rotary Club president, Mike Elgin, said although he wasn’t there when Cobler spoke, he heard that it got “a little bit out of control.”
“I heard that Randy was questioning him but don’t know specifics other than that (Boyd) wasn’t very polite and that he was not very Rotarian. I wasn’t pleased with that,” Elgin said Monday.
Boyd was the only board member Monday to ask any questions.
He asked the port’s attorney, Bill Cobb, whether he thought the port had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. Cobb said “absolutely not” and added that the port had a 70 percent chance of winning the case should it go to trial.
The port has spent about $400,000 in legal fees. The newspaper’s fees have risen to $95,000, Griffin said.
Griffin said he underestimated the Advocate’s legal expenses when he was asked by a reporter a few weeks ago, but “it’s still breadcrumbs compared to what the port has paid.”
The board members also each get $250 for attending a second meeting in one month. The port has no record of the board taking a vote to compensate itself at this level, but it does so anyway.
Some community leaders think it’s important to stand with the port because it is the community’s economic engine. Russell Cain, a Realtor and the Calhoun County Republican Party chairman, attended the Rotary Club meeting and apologized to Cobler afterward but said he didn’t want to comment on the dispute when contacted Monday night.
“The port has done a lot of good for the area,” Cain said.
But Farenthold’s hiring has put the port under the microscope, and not everyone has liked what they found. Boyd has four challengers in the May 4 election to keep his seat on the board.
Two of his challengers, Roger Hochgraber and Alvin Bland, said they didn’t have an opinion about whether the port should have ended the lawsuit, while another challenger, Paul Lauterbach, could not be reached by deadline.
Challenger Luis De La Garza, however, said, “It makes me suspicious that they went directly into a vote without any actual discussion of what points were not acceptable to the board.”
Shields A. “Tony” Holladay Sr. made the motion to reject the offer. H.C. “Tony” Wehmeyer Jr. seconded his motion. The vote was unanimous.
In September, the port appealed District Judge Bobby Bell’s decision that the case should go to trial. The 13th Court of Appeals should issue an opinion in a few weeks, Griffin said.