Victoria Internet Cafe case continues (copy)

The Friday hearing in the Texas Open Meetings Act lawsuit against the Calhoun Port Authority took place at the Victoria County Courthouse.

The Calhoun Port Authority thinks the Texas Open Meetings Act lawsuit it is facing is “pointless.”

The port’s attorney, Bill Cobb, argued Friday that Judge Bobby Bell could not nullify the hiring of former Congressman Blake Farenthold as the port’s lobbyist because Farenthold was not hired by the board, but by Port Director Charles Hausmann.

Cobb said the board did not take action after it came out of a more than an hourlong closed session May 9 in which it consulted with Hausmann about hiring Farenthold.

Bell disagreed.

In the hearing, the judge read the port’s employee manual and said it did not give Hausmann the authority to hire and fire employees. It said only that the port director “shall consult with the commissioners before determining which applicant qualifies best for the position.”

“It seems to me the plain reading of this would be that the port director does determine who has the best qualifications for the position but ultimately the board is the one who decides who gets hired and fired,” Bell said.

Cobb countered, “I disagree entirely that that’s what it says.”

“I’m reading it from the manual,” Bell responded.

“I get what you’re reading, but that’s not what those words mean,” Cobb said.

Bell also questioned Cobb’s argument that the board took no action after the May 9 closed session.

“Port Board Chairman Randy Boyd directed the port director to proceed with hiring the person discussed,” according to the minutes.

“Was that not action?” Bell asked.

“That was not action,” Cobb said.

“OK, but was he hired?” Bell asked.

“He was hired by Charles Hausmann, the port director,” Cobb said.

“So the board consulted with him and said, ‘OK. Go ahead and do what we talked about?’” Bell asked.

“Exactly,” Cobb said.

“And that’s not the board hiring him?” Bell asked.

“No, it is not,” Cobb said.

“And what if the board said, ‘Don’t do what we talked about?’” Bell asked.

“Then we don’t necessarily know what would have happened. We don’t know if Hausmann would have hired him or not,” Cobb said.

Cobb also argued that because the board changed its employee manual regarding hiring practices and voted 3-3 on whether to fire Farenthold during its May 24 meeting that any alleged Texas Open Meetings Act violation that occurred May 9 had been cured.

Cobb said the board did that to “please the Advocate.”

But, again, Bell disagreed.

“I think if you were going to do it to please the Advocate the vote would have been whether to hire Farenthold, not whether to fire him. I think it was done because the port authority knew that they couldn’t get it done so they changed the game to, ‘We’re going to vote to fire him,’” Bell said.

“I respectfully disagree,” Cobb said. “You can’t hire someone who has already been hired. If they wanted to hire him, they would have had to fire him first.”

The two also debated over whether the public had any notice of Farenthold’s hiring.

Cobb said that Farenthold announced his hiring on the radio in Corpus Christi and that the port later issued a news release.

“They didn’t try to keep it secret at all,” Cobb said.

The Advocate did not receive a news release on the hiring.

Bell said he’d take Cobb’s motion under advisement and asked both Cobb and the attorney representing the newspaper, John Griffin, to start thinking about what questions of fact they want to ask a jury should the case go to trial.

Bell suggested asking the jury, “Was the hiring of Blake Farenthold for the position of legislative liaison of special interest?”

If it was of special interest, Farenthold’s name, position and salary should have been listed on the May 9 agenda as the reason for the closed session, Griffin has said.

Cobb, meanwhile, has argued that a position is only of special interest if the person hired is public-facing and policymaking. He has said that Farenthold’s position as a lobbyist is neither of those things.

Bell, Cobb and Griffin scheduled time to talk by phone about the case next Sept. 4.

Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at jpriest@vicad.com or 361-580-6521.

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Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest has done a little bit of everything since moving to Victoria in 2012. She was a regular fixture in the Crossroads’ historic courthouses, but now slathers on the sunscreen to report on the environment.

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