Houston and the Port Commission fall short on Community Representation

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition was denied a chance for citizen representation

By Adrian Shelley

The Houston Ship Channel is often called the “Economic Engine” of the Houston region. The Port Houston Commission boasts of throughout Texas.

But the economic prosperity created by the port doesn’t always trickle down to its nearest neighbors. Indeed, the environmental justice communities adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel struggle with low incomes, limited access to healthcare, and a heavy burden of pollution. That’s why the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) was created – to advocate for the health and safety of communities affected by the Houston Ship Chanel.

In March, the HPCC learned that one of its members—Bridgette Murray, the founder and executive director of Pleasantville-based nonprofit Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS)—had been nominated to serve as a commissioner of Port Houston.

Port Houston has seven commissioners, and their appointment procedures are fixed by state law. The Chairman is jointly appointed by the City of Houston and Harris County. Two appointments are made by the City of Houston, two by Harris County, one by the City of Pasadena, and one by the Harris County Mayors and Councils Association.

In 2013, the Port of Houston underwent sunset review during the 83rd legislative session. At the time, Healthy Port Communities Coalition members called for several reforms, including the designation of a citizen representative on the port commission. Some reforms came to the Port during the sunset process, but most HPCC recommendations were not adopted.

The next Port Chairman, Janice Longoria, created the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council as a nod toward citizen representation; several HPCC members were appointed to the Council, including Ms. Murray. But the Council fell short of its goals, and it wasn’t long after the sunset process that HPCC members were publicly criticizing the port for falling short. When Port Chairman Janice Longoria termed out and was replaced by Ric Campo, the CCAC was dissolved. Although the Port has indicated that it will continue with community engagement, the HPCC has not seen it take any steps to do so.

That brings us to this month, when HPCC member Bridgette Murray was nominated by Houston City Council Member Jerry Davis. HPCC members and other community advocates quickly rallied around Ms. Murray, speaking in support of her at City Council on March Third.

In addition to her leadership of ACTS and her participation in the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, Bridgette Murray is the President of the Pleasantville Area Super Neighborhood, a five-year member of the Port Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council, and a senior fellow at the American Leadership Forum. Bridgette is well known among Houston’s organizing community and her nomination was enthusiastically supported by the public.

Ms. Murray’s chief competition was Cheryl Creuzot, President Emeritus of Wealth Development Strategies, LLC and member of the family that started Houston restaurant chain Frenchy’s Chicken. Unlike Bridgette, Ms. Creuzot did not take the opportunity to publicly address city council on her candidacy. (There was some confusion about whether Ms. Creuzot received an explicit invitation to do so, but a public comment opportunity is always available for items on the City Council Agenda.)

HPCC members and our allies lobbied hard for Ms. Murray’s appointment. She would have been the first member of the Port Commission appointed due to her role as a local community organizer. Unfortunately, city councilmembers overwhelmingly voted in favor of Ms. Creuzot, who had Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s support. (Both Ms. Creuzot and Ms. Murray donated to Mayor Turner’s election campaign. Ms. Creuzot donated $1500, Ms. Murray, $50.)

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition was disappointed by City Council’s decision to once again forego citizen representation on the Port Houston Commission. In the end, only four council

members voted for Ms. Murray:

  • CM Amy Peck – District A
  • CM Jerry Davis – District B
  • CM Robert Gallegos – District I (pictured at right)
  • CM Mike Knox – At Large 1

Twelve council members voted for Ms. Creuzot:

  • CM Kamin, District C
  • CM Evans-Shabazz
  • CM Martin, District E
  • CM Thomas, District F
  • CM Travis, District G
  • CM Cisneros, District H
  • CM Pollard, District J
  • CM Castex-Tatum, District K
  • CM Robinson, At Large 2
  • CM Kubosh, At Large 3
  • CM Plummer, At Large 4
  • CM Alcorn, At Large 5

There may be a silver lining to this loss. Several council members, including CM Robert Gallegos and CM Michael Kubosh, expressed concern that Port Houston had disbanded the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council. This would be a step in the right direction, although the HPCC has always been skeptical that the CCAC was ever an effective advisory body. For years, the HPCC has called for improvements to the CCAC (see the last three paragraphs of this blog). Our recommendations are:

  1. The existence of the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC) should be codified in statute, regulation, or by memorandum.
  2. The chairs on the CCAC should be designated for particular constituencies or neighborhoods, including the chair already designated for the Healthy Port Communities Coalition.
  3. The representative for each chair should be selected by each corresponding constituency, via a process of their choosing.
  4. The CCAC should have the authority to set agenda items for CCAC meetings.
  5. CCAC members should be given time to make presentations at CCAC meetings. Port Houston should be required to formally respond to any presentations and answer any questions posed.
  6. The CCAC should have the authority to make information requests and pose questions to Port Houston. The Port Commission should be required to respond.
  7. The CCAC should be given monthly opportunities to report on its work to the Port Commission.
  8. The CCAC should be able to recommend studies to be conducted by Port Houston. If Port Houston declines to undertake a recommended study, it should clearly state its rationale for doing so.

If Houston City Council is serious about community representation at Port Houston, then it should advocate for the reforming of the CCAC and the implementation of our recommendations. This would not achieve our goal of direct citizen representation on the Port Commission, but it would be a start.