PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

September 27, 2012

Downtown group asks reporter to leave meeting

Brooke Crum
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — The Downtown Renaissance District Board discussed its plans to spruce up downtown Wednesday afternoon, but the board did not seem too eager to share its plans with the population of Port Arthur.

After Chairwoman Judyette Jackson called the meeting to order and checked attendance, she introduced the guests there — Councilmen Raymond Scott Jr. and Harold Doucet and Assistant City Manager of Operations John Comeaux — and questioned the presence of the News.

“Did anyone invite the media to the meeting?” Jackson asked the room. “Anybody know the reason?”

The meeting was held in the city manager’s conference room at City Hall, and the City Council created the board. The DRDB is funded by the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation through an economic incentive agreement, said Floyd Batiste, CEO of the PAEDC.

“We’re going to have to ask you to leave,” Jackson said. “We don’t have anything of importance that needs to go in the paper.”

The News was permitted to stay for the duration of the meeting, but Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney, said that the DRDB would likely need to follow the Texas Open Meetings Act based on the nature of the board’s operations. Larsen offered his opinion through the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas hotline.

Larsen said that the board would need to post notice of the meetings in a place accessible to the public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting alongside an agenda of subjects to be discussed. No notice or agenda was posted at City Hall, where notices and agendas for council meetings, public forums and other open meetings are usually posted.

The City Council created the DRDB to renovate downtown, according to city Resolution No. 09-520. And the board is scheduled to receive $98,000 from the EDC Oct. 1, the first day of the city’s and EDC’s new fiscal year.

The board requested that the council adopt the Procter Street Master Plan, a plan to revitalize the area downtown that is bordered by Houston Avenue on the west, Rev. Dr. Ransom Howard/7th Street on the north, Lake Charles Avenue on the east and the ship channel on the south. The council adopted this plan July 24, so it is likely that these plans would be implemented.

Because those drawings were “rubber-stamped” by the council and “real work and decisions” are likely to be made by the board, Larsen said that there was a good argument there for the board to follow open-meeting laws.

The Open Meetings Act requires meetings of governmental bodies be open to the public “except for expressly authorized executive sessions,” according to the Texas Attorney General website. Subjects that may be discussed in executive session include legal advice, personnel matters, value or transfer of real property, and prospective gifts or donations to a governmental body.

The Act also requires that the governmental body give the public notice of the time, place and subject matter of the meetings. A “governmental body” includes all Texas public entities at state and local levels and private entities that are supported “in whole or in part by public funds or they expend public funds,” according to the website.

“This board was created by the council, and it’s time for the council to support what it created,” Batiste said at the meeting.

So far, the DRDB had voted to spend $136,000 on engineering services as of July 31, Batiste said.

Terry Fontenot, who owns Terry’s Downtown Thrift Shop on Procter Street, said that was a waste of money. He said that money should go toward helping people establish themselves downtown, which would in turn attract big businesses to the area.

Fontenot, 61, bought the building in the 700 block of Procter Street in the hopes of seeing a nightlife develop in the area. It didn’t work out, he said. The store opened about a year and a half ago and appeared to be one of the only shops with its doors still open on that side of Procter Street.

Though Fontenot grew up in Port Arthur, he traveled the world for almost 30 years as a professional ballet dancer. When he retired, he came home and opened this store in order to have a source of income.

“It’s nice to have people come by,” he said.

Fontenot did not think downtown was dangerous and that people needed to realize that their lives were not in their hands when they wandered downtown. He said he could envision a big hotel or parking garage down by the boardwalk, something 20 stories high with a view of the surrounding land.

“You can see everything down there,” he said.

bcrum@panews.com