The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
Squabbling among Port Arthur City Council once again took centerstage Tuesday when some members accused others of improprieties, setting the stage for a meeting where insults and innuendoes overshadowed city business.
“I feel like we are putting things on the agenda that are personal and attacking each other, and we are not getting the city business taken care of. It is more fighting than anything,” Kerry Thomas, Position 8 city council member, said Wednesday during a telephone interview.
Thomas was among the council members singled-out Tuesday during a part of the Council meeting designated for reports and recommendations.
The subject: Whether Thomas should have recused himself during a recent Council vote concerning Edison Square — a housing complex for the elderly to be built on 12th Street, where the old Edison Elementary School stood.
District 5 Councilman Willie Bae Lewis said he had asked for a report on the matter because he felt there was no grounds for a conflict of interest, Thomas, he said, was claiming one in order to “skirt the vote.”
Lewis voted against the zoning change, which passed by a 5-3 vote.
Elected officials have a responsibility to vote if at all possible, Lewis said.
Because Thomas’ daughter works for the Edison Square developer ITEX Group, LLD, at another of the company’s properties, O.W. Collins, Thomas said he felt it would be prudent to recuse himself.
At Tuesday’s meeting, City Attorney Val Tizeno said she had consulted with the Texas Municipal League of Cities, and looked at state statutes to determine whether there was a conflict.
“The TML has instructed us if you feel there is something in which you have a conflict of interest, it is better to err on the side of caution,” Tizeno said. “The conflict of interest law is one you have to personally make.”
After consulting with Tizeno, Thomas said he decided to recuse himself — to take the legal advice from someone who had studied the law.
“Councilman Lewis is no attorney, even though he thinks he is. The city attorney has been to law school; I will take her advice,” Thomas said Tuesday.
Earlier in the meeting Thomas had expressed concern that the Port Arthur City Council had become a laughingstock because of the in-fighting among members.
“We as a Council embarrass the Council everytime we get up here,” Thomas said. “There are some things we can discuss downstairs (in closed session.) We need to grow up.”
In response to Thomas’ recusal from the Edison vote, Lewis borrowed Thomas’ words.
“Using his own terms, somebody needs to grow up. He needs to grow up,” Lewis said.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Thomas said he was confident recusing himself from the vote was the right thing to do.
“I try to do everything above board, and me recusing myself is what I thought I was doing,” Thomas said. “It really upset me, he (Lewis) said I was skirting around the issue.”
Thomas was not the only Councilmember scrutinized Tuesday.
In another report, District 6 Councilman Robert E. Williamson’s comments made during a recent newspaper article came under fire.
District 4 Councilman Raymond Scott took issue with comments reported by Williamson in a July 11 article published by The Port Arthur News entitled “City manager gets another year.”
“He is making comments and they are just his opinions,” Scott said.
In the article, Williamson was quoted as saying the city manager’s contract was approved for an additional year, and that the manager was given a “C-” for his performance during his first year on the job.
According to Scott, Williamson’s comments were not only wrong, they were spoke out of turn.
“He is not speaking for the whole council, or making comments for the entire council,” Scott said.
Human Resources Director Albert Thigpen said the city manager worked as an “at-will” employee.
Tizeno, in a phone conversation Wednesday, said the city’s charter prohibits the city manager from having a contract with a definite fixed term. The city manager does, however, have a letter of agreement that outlines his duties, salary and benefits.
Williamson said he had apologized to the city manager for anything in the article that could be construed as not being factual, but was at a loss to know how to describe is opinions.
“It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps a year ago, I used (the words) ‘I’ and ‘my’, and a council member chided me for it,” Williams said, adding the he could assure all that any opinions he expressed were strictly his own.
Scott said he was not sure where Williamson got the C- grade he reference in the article, because that was not the grade given to the manager when his performance was discussed during closed session at the last City Council meeting.
During Tuesday’s discussion, District 3 Councilman Morris Albright III voiced his displeasure at the direction the media discussion was taking.
“Each time any of us talk to the media now, are we going to have a discussion in a Council meeting?” Albright said.
If so, Albright said he hoped the council would break, so he could leave.
“I fully believe this is full-blown idiotic,” Albright said.
Williamson, a seven-year Council member, said he has seen this type behavior before — once before.
“The worst I have seen it was when Councilman Lewis was physically attacking Mayor Ortiz,” Williamson said. “I think Willie Lewis and Council member Scott have an agenda and it is the same agenda upon which they were elected, they have to dog the city, they have to make the city look as bad as possible all the time. It is not at all helpful, but they will not stop. Several members of Council have asked them publicly and privately to stop doing this, and the will not stop.”
Thomas said he would like to see the Council’s direction toward personal attacks turn around.
“Next board meeting I would like for us to take care of the city’s business, to put our personal agendas aside,” Thomas said. “From the mayor on to Position 8, to every Councilmember up there, we have to work to the betterment of the city, and to be able to agree and disagree.
“Lately, I have seen Council members automatically in attack mode, and I cannot believe we are acting like that. Councilman Lewis has a wealth of knowledge, and I would like to learn from the senior members instead of learning how to fight at all times.”