Taxpayer-funded meals for city council members debated among Port Arthur leaders

Published 12:20 am Thursday, October 12, 2023

To have a meal paid for or not. That is the question that led to much discussion this week by Port Arthur City Council members.

The issue of whether food and beverages would be provided to councilmembers during working meetings at a cost to taxpayers even made it to social media, which irked some city leaders.

In the end, after opinions and facts were stated and with input from the city’s attorney added, Councilman Donald Frank Sr., who requested the item be placed on the agenda as an ordinance, changed his mind and the issue failed to be approved.

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Frank first cited the long hours council is usually in session, such as during the budget process that may go on eight hours. Council meets every other Tuesday, with one meeting starting in the morning and the other in the evening.

“And we’re not talking lobster and shrimp,” Frank said. “Were talking about a $10 to $15 meal that’s given to a council member and staff during the time we are here. It doesn’t have to be at every meeting. It’s not illegal.”

The city, he said, has multi-million dollar businesses, such as refineries, but there is concern about the cost of a meal.

Frank also said he has heard of councilmembers not eating the provided meals due to fear of retribution.

Councilman Harold Doucet, an opponent of the meals, cited the city’s credit card policy as to why the meals shouldn’t be paid for by taxpayers.

City councilmembers receive a stipend, as well as a vehicle allowance, though not all members accept the funds.

“$10 to $15 meals? I saw and have seen meals from Cheddars and Saltgrass and the only thing you can get from Cheddars and Saltgrass for $5 is a hobo meal — that’s a toothpick and glass of water,” Doucet said.

As for councilmembers not eating for fear of retribution, that is false, he said.

“No, we’re not afraid of retribution. We feel it ain’t right. We feel it’s not justifiable so that’s why we don’t do it,” he said, he has not seen staff get a meal since he’s been on council.

Councilmember Doneane Beckcom said she has seen councilmembers eat their meals during executive session and does not think anyone received retribution from her.

Citizens have contacted her, she said, who are not in agreement with the meals paid for for council.

“I bring my snacks, I bring my juice, I bring whatever. I’ve done that my entire career,” Beckcom said. “If I know I’m going to be in court all day long, I bring my snacks. I’m always prepared. I’ve asked for meals to not be provided to me from the get-go.”

Councilman Thomas Kinlaw III asked the city attorney, Valecia Tizeno, if council was doing anything illegal with the purchase of the meals.

The quick answer: no.

Tizeno looked to the city’s credit card policy and spoke of cardholders’ responsibilities, saying there is misuse if the sole benefit is for the employee clothing and food not authorized by the employee’s department.

For example, if she were to take the card and go get something to eat, that would be for her sole benefit and has nothing to do with her job. But if the money were used for food, a table or chair, a microphone, something that can be tied to a public purpose, then courts would not challenge it, Tizeno said.

The ordinance that was in question pertained to providing a procedure to authorize expenditures for the provision of food and beverages during working meetings of the city.

Frank, who requested the ordinance be placed on the agenda for approval, changed his mind, saying “I operate on a higher standard, and that standard is if eating meat, and that’s not a pun, offends my brother, I won’t eat meat.”

The ordinance was placed for a roll call vote with all council members voting “no” with the exception of the mayor. The motion failed.