Senate orders review of Port of Houston Authority

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AUSTIN, Texas—The Texas Senate has ordered a review of operations and policies of the Port of Houston Authority to investigate whether the body fully complies with state law, following reports of misuse of a tour vessel and possible conflicts of interest.

Sen. John Whitmire of Houston proposed the call for a Sunset Commission review in an amendment to a bill related to the powers of navigation districts and port authorities, The Houston Chronicle reported Thursday. The state Senate approved the review Tuesday.

Whitmire has been critical of the port’s $71 million Bayport cruise ship terminal, which has not been home to a cruise ship since its 2008 completion.

Port Authority chairman Jim Edmonds and CEO Alec Dreyer have requested an investigation by the Harris County district attorney’s office to ensure their activities have not violated state law.

"I’m confident that a state review will reveal that the Port Authority operates (its) business while fully complying with Texas law," Edmonds said Wednesday. "It is our hope, however, that any state review not inadvertently jeopardize operations at the Port of Houston or capital projects and impede its growth."

Review by the Sunset Commission, which examines whether an agency or parts of it should be abolished, is not limited to state operations.

"(The Port Authority) was created 100 years ago by the state," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, also of Houston. "I think that after a century it’s a good thing to give it a top-to-bottom review to see if there are governance issues, accountability issues and transparency recommendations."

The Houston Chronicle has reported that Dreyer used the port’s tour vessel for a private function, and that Edmonds had a contract with AECOM, a company that does business with the port. Edmonds said last week that his AECOM contract ended in March. Further details on the contract were not immediately available.

Capital projects are paid for with bonds backed by a property tax. The port is using $53.6 million in property taxes this year to pay its debts.

A sunset review is preferable to a legislator filing a bill to eliminate or greatly change port operations, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

"It gets a broader range of people looking at it, as opposed to one or several legislators who decide something needs to change, and they go off to change it," Emmett said. "This would provide for a thorough, measured look."